When Dayton’s was a big deal

Dayton Dry Goods Co Postcard
A postcard view of the Dayton Dry Goods Company, 1912

I’d always assumed Dayton’s was the first large department store in downtown Minneapolis. Wrong!

Thank You for Shopping: The Golden Age of Minnesota Department Stores (which came out this past November) set me straight:

“Donaldson’s set up shop along Nicollet Avenue in grand fashion with its ‘Glass Block’ structure in 1889. Dayton’s didn’t come along until 1902, and then as Goodfellow’s Dry Goods.”

Author Kristal Leebrick’s book also gives an account of the “Dayton’s Delivery” airplane: In a publicity stunt from 1919, a light aircraft, its wings removed, unloaded merchandise tagged, “By airplane from New York to Minneapolis for The Dayton Company,” street-side in front of the store.

Donaldson's
Donaldson’s

Focusing largely on Minneapolis department stores, Thank You for Shopping also presents the stories behind those in St. Paul and several other cities, including Fandel’s in St. Cloud, Choate’s in Winona and Freimuth’s in Duluth.

The coffee-table-size book is lavishly illustrated with vintage advertisements, postcards, menus, sales slips and scads of photos.

A couple of black and white shots immediately caught my eye. One depicts a gorgeous model showing off a Nettie Rosenstein gown in a Dayton’s 1959 fashion show — similar to one I had in the 1960s for a formal occasion.

Another black and white full-pager is of a street scene in front of St. Paul’s Emporium Department Store from November 1952. Christmas decorations are up. Women shoppers are bundled in winter coats and babushkas. A Chevy sedan — like the one I used to have — is waiting for the light to change.

Dayton's Organ Grinder
In October 1958, Dayton’s transformed the main floor of its Minneapolis store into a Boulevard International, featuring small shops made to replicate those of a European village. Images courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press

Perusing the book rekindled my memories of those days when shopping at these places was something of an event.

Every September during my youth (in the late 1940s and early 1950s), my parents and I (then living in rural southwestern Minnesota) would jump in the car and take a much-anticipated drive to Mankato. We’d spend all afternoon at Brett’s Department Store on Front Street picking out my school clothes and maybe a new hat for my mother.

A decade later, grown up and moved to Minneapolis, I’d ride the bus downtown, and hit Dayton’s, Donaldson’s and Powers, in that order, comparison shopping for outfits for my secretarial job, and maybe slip over to Young Quinlan for a peek at their current (too pricy) high-fashion collection.

Next, I’d meet up with fellow-shopper girlfriends at Dayton’s Sky Room for lunch. With its crystal chandeliers, city view and white tablecloths, dining there on wild rice soup and Mandarin chicken was a huge deal to us.

Small-town girls, fresh out of high school and working in “the Cities,” we relished the cosmopolitan charm of the big department stores: the smartly dressed mannequins, the elegant ladies rooms, the white-gloved elevator operators, viewing sparkly Christmas windows at night, with snow gently falling.

Who’dathunk all of this one day would go away and be replaced by ordering from a computer screen?


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to chall@mngoodage.com.