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Attention 1916 Shoppers: The Doctor Is In

NEW YORK — Lord & Taylor, going up — eighth floor: robes, lingerie, hosiery; 11th floor: eye, ear, nose and throat clinic, chiropodist, dental care, urinalysis, hospital operating room.

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RESTRICTED -- Attention 1916 Shoppers: The Doctor Is In
SANDRA ROFF, New York Times

NEW YORK — Lord & Taylor, going up — eighth floor: robes, lingerie, hosiery; 11th floor: eye, ear, nose and throat clinic, chiropodist, dental care, urinalysis, hospital operating room.

Who knew? But yes, The New York Times reported in 1904 that “small hospital wards are the latest features among the comforts and conveniences of the shops in a big city.”

Long before the announcement in January of a new employee health care partnership among Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co., U.S. department stores, led by John Wanamaker, were introducing an array of free worker welfare benefits — innovations that were sometimes called Industrial Paternalism. Ill or injured patrons were also accommodated.

The initiatives quickly spread to Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Saks & Co., Bloomingdale’s, B. Altman & Co., Jordan Marsh and other shopping emporiums whose names have passed into mercantile heaven.

The long-forgotten history emerges from articles in newspapers, journals and trade publications and photo archives at the Museum of the City of New York.

Common store services for employees, according to The Times, included pharmacies and emergency rooms to set broken limbs, perform surgery and deliver babies, employee-only lunchrooms, academic and vocational classrooms, sun lounges, vacation camps, libraries, parlors stocked with fine stationery and maid-attended bathrooms with combs and brushes, curling irons, weighing machines and “shoe-blacking damsels.”

Lord & Taylor, New York’s oldest luxury department store, founded in 1826, boasted “one of the most attractive and completely equipped of the small hospitals in New York City,” according to an article in The Modern Hospital magazine in 1916. The store operated the hospital when it was located on Broadway and East 20th Street before moving to its new building on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th streets in 1914.

On Fifth Avenue, the entire 11th floor was devoted to employee health and welfare, from the hospital to various medical and dental clinics, a roof garden, gymnasium, a schoolroom for boys and girls and an employee restaurant. Food prices were moderate: Corned beef and potatoes cost the equivalent of $3.30 today.

Now, Lord & Taylor is in limbo, with the flagship building sold off last year to the office-sharing company WeWork for $850 million. A ghostly air pervades the 11th floor, now given over to a Gaiam yoga studio, jammed storerooms, closets and an employee conference room. But the roof garden where saleswomen (referred to as salesgirls back then) took the air and promenaded a century ago is still there, latticework and all.

B. Altman operated a 12th-floor emergency hospital that by 1916 was handling as many as 18,000 cases a year, according to Hospital Management magazine. A 1914 brochure celebrating the store’s expansion said, “The 12th floor of the new addition has been given over in its entirety to the use of the employees.” Separate dining rooms served men and women, and a physician and two nurses oversaw a large medical suite and surgery. Also, in a sign of those times, there was a men’s smoking room.

The store, which originally opened in Lower Manhattan in 1865, closed its Midtown flagship in 1989. Ten years later, its premises, gutted and rebuilt, were occupied by the City University of New York Graduate Center. Nothing remains of the onetime hospital, said Tanya L. Domi, a spokeswoman for the Graduate Center.

Welfare services for department store workers began with John Wanamaker, a brickmaker’s son born in 1838 who turned a struggling Philadelphia haberdashery into a department store empire built on creative advertising and selling strategies. But Wanamaker was not just focused on making money. He wanted to keep his workers healthy and happy, and so in an era of rapacious capitalism, child labor and male privilege he introduced half-day-Saturdays off, medical benefits and a retirement system. He made sure that the store abided by Pennsylvania’s ban on hiring of boys younger than 13.

His competitors soon followed with medical facilities, employee exercise and lunchrooms, educational training, vacation programs and medical clinics.

When Macy’s expanded in 1924, the new 16th floor included an employee dental clinic with chairs for six dentists.

The James McCreery & Co. dry goods store boasted a rooftop restaurant and sun parlor said to be the first of its kind anywhere. Stewart & Co. built a similar amenity for workers in Baltimore and stocked it with newspapers, magazines and inspirational books — and a sewing machine. At the Kaufmann & Baer store in Pittsburgh, women relaxed on the sun roof, while men played basketball in wire cage courts.

As far back as 1896, the Siegel-Cooper store (then the largest store in the world, now home to TJ Maxx and Bed Bath & Beyond, among others), established an employees association that bought a summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey, where the 825 female employees could vacation free each year for a week. The innovation drew praise from New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Queen Victoria.

The health and welfare innovations grew out of efforts in the 1880s to improve working conditions for women, especially those in the retail trade. By 1891 the Consumers League of New York City was documenting abusive conditions on the selling floor and soon began publishing a “White List” of stores with visionary welfare policies like compensated overtime, paid vacations and — way back then — “equal pay for work of equal value, irrespective of sex.” Arnold Constable & Co., Best & Co., Stern Bros., and Wanamaker’s made the 1896 list of 31, up from an initial eight, along with some familiar names that are still around.

So Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon may be onto something with plans for an independent health care company for the U.S. employees of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Welcome, gentlemen, to the 19th century.

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