Why you should care
Because which is more remarkable: a helium-filled purple dinosaur or a 26-year-old female executive in 1867?
If you’re an American under 100, you probably can’t remember a Thanksgiving that did not begin with the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which celebrated its 89th annual event yesterday in New York City. The parade has become synonymous with the prominent department store chain, but what really made Macy’s reputation as the “World’s Largest Store” was not an it, but a she. More than half a century before the balloons and pageantry began in 1924, Macy’s tied its flagship float to a rising young figure, fixing its future to what is still a rare commodity in the retail world today: a female executive.
A few months before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, an enterprising 20-year-old Nantucket schoolteacher named Margaret Getchell traded the apples on her desk for a seat at a cashier’s desk in the Big Apple, taking an entry-level job in a dry-goods store run by her distant cousin Rowland Hussey Macy. R.H. Macy was an American original — a sailor and salesman who had panned for gold in California and hunted whales in the Pacific before diving into Manhattan’s retail scene. Over a 12-year span (1843-55), the struggling entrepreneur had opened and shut four stores, and the 5.0 version that Getchell signed on to racked up just $11.06 in sales its first day.
Getchell, a personable, pretty and incredibly industrious worker, made a quick impression on Macy. She had an aptitude for numbers, and whatever visual acuity she lacked (a childhood accident had left her with a glass eye), she more than made up for with vision and financial acumen. She often stayed late to help with the company accounts and by age 22 had been promoted to serve as the store’s bookkeeper.
Macy attributed a large part of his store’s ultimate success to the remarkable Getchell.
It wasn’t just the books that Getchell helped balance, but also Macy’s ambitions for his store. A relentless innovator, Macy pioneered practices such as marking prices in plain sight, selling items for the same price to every customer and targeting bargain shoppers with clever advertisements. Still, before Getchell showed up, R.H. Macy & Co. mostly sold ribbons, lace and related accessories; under her influence, it would become a full-fledged modern department store, the first of its kind in America. The young Getchell continually bombarded Macy with suggestions and ideas for expanding the store’s inventory and reach — by “putting a bug in his ear,” as she liked to say.
And by the time Getchell was done, there were several million-dollar ideas buzzing around Macy’s head — and throughout his store. On her recommendation, the inventory was expanded to include clothing, hats, household goods, jewelry and toiletries. Getchell proposed installing a soda fountain at the back of the store for thirsty customers, shrewdly positioned well past a minefield of merchandise. According to the late Harvard historian Ralph M. Hower, Macy attributed a large part of his store’s ultimate success to the remarkable Getchell.
By 1867, at just 26 years old, Getchell became the store’s superintendent, making her, Hower said, very likely the first woman to hold such an executive position in American business. “While it was not at all unusual at this time to employ women in retail stores,” Hower wrote in History of Macy’s of New York, 1858-1919, “to give one of them an executive position of such importance seems to have marked a radical departure from normal practice.”
Getchell came up with many clever gimmicks, including the eye-catching window display.
As superintendent, Getchell was in charge of routine operations, managing the predominantly female staff and providing Macy’s with an almost unfair competitive advantage in wooing what was then, as today, a largely female customer base. Getchell came up with many clever gimmicks, including the eye-catching window display. She once dressed two cats in doll’s clothing and placed them inside baby cribs in the store’s window — a sight that drew crowds and buyers eager to take home the cats’ photographs. (That’s right, even in the 19th century, Americans loved staged cat photos.) As one magazine observed years later, “Miss Getchell lived before Mickey Mouse and helium gas, but she had the right idea.”
Macy’s company tripled in size under Getchell’s stewardship and by 1869 was responsible for more than 200 employees and $1 million in annual sales. About that time, the accomplished executive turned her attention to a different priority: having a family. After meeting a handsome army captain named Abiel T. LaForge, Getchell saw to it that he was invited to the next employees’ dance at the store. Not surprisingly, as Hower observes, “she got her man.”
The two were married that June, LaForge was hired as a lace buyer and they took rooms over the store. After her first child was born, Getchell gave up full-time employment but continued to work, even taking charge of the store for several months in 1873 (while pregnant with her third son), when Macy and her husband traveled overseas on a buying trip. And she did it all without a salary, something she was asked to give up once LaForge became a partner in the store, proving that even for a top executive, being a woman in a man’s world could be a thankless pursuit. By 1877, the store had expanded to 11 adjacent buildings, and Getchell’s family had expanded to include six children in eight years. Sadly, LaForge died in 1878, and Getchell, who had a heart condition, followed him two years later.
But what Getchell accomplished in her brief run atop Macy’s can still be felt in the retail world today, even if, 150 years later, female executives in that space continue to be overwhelmingly underrepresented. Which is a shame for so many reasons, including the bottom line: Because with women still controlling the purse strings when it comes to most household purchasing decisions, and the retail industry still struggling postrecession, most of these companies could benefit from smart women like Margaret Getchell putting a bug in their ears.