Petticoat Lane Was the Headquarters for Early Department Stores
By Diane Euston
Petticoat Lane, known today as 11th Street, was an iconic stretch of real estate in downtown Kansas City famous for year-round fashion. During the holidays, garlands were strung across streets, anchored by large crowns that set the scene for Kansas City’s most fashionable retailers. The history of three of its largest merchants tells an interesting story of the ready-made clothing movement that replaced sewing machines at the turn of the century.
Emery, Bird, Thayer (EBT)
The very beginnings of Petticoat Lane can be traced to Kansas City’s first modern department store. With roots starting on the riverfront, Kersey Coates and William Gilliss opened a dry goods store at the corner of Missouri Avenue and Main Street that was synonymous with the early birth of the city. In 1871 the firm, then named Bullene Bros. & Co., moved to a three-story building on the southwest corner of 7th and Main streets. Investors included Thomas H. Bullene, L. Bullene and W.E. Emery.
In 1883 after numerous name changes and purchasers of interest, W.B. Thayer, a longtime employee of the firm, bought into the business. All owners of the company lived locally except for Emery who resided in New York City. They had company buyers in Paris and Vienna helping the store locate and purchase the best products at the lowest price. In 1886 the company advertised “smoking jackets at $7.50 are going fast. Be sure to see them.”
In 1889 the business, then known as Bullene, Moore, Thayer & Co., announced a move from their three-story building to 11th and Walnut. In March 1889 they began construction of a six-story masterpiece storefront. At the time, Bullene, Moore, Thayer & Co. was responsible for half of the retail dry goods business in Kansas City.
The new property and the future of Petticoat Lane rested upon the decision of this one company. The new building fronted Walnut, Grand and 11th Street and cost over $590,000. Its location set off a storm of buying and selling of lots in the area.
Moore told the Kansas City Star, “We have known further that Walnut Street and Grand Avenue were destined sooner or later to become the business streets of this city. . . We expect to greatly increase a business already the largest west of Chicago.”
When the store opened its doors in September 1890 it employed about 700 men, women and children. It’s estimated that at least 2,000 people depended on the firm for a living.
The store featured 403 windows, 485 decorative columns and 10,000 feet of counters. A grand stairway and the ladies reception parlor were described as “a work of art.” Three elevators carried patrons throughout the six stories that included a men’s finishing department, ladies hosiery, corsets, leather goods, druggists’ sundries and linens. A tea room was a fashionable place to stop for a quick snack while shopping.
One impressive feature of Bullene, Moore, Thayer & Co. was a pneumatic tube cash system that started at the cashier’s office on the third floor. Some 35 cashier stations throughout the building were connected by two-inch-wide suction tubes that sent cash flowing throughout the building. The tubes traveled as much as 2.5 miles to each location.
By the 1890s the final name of Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co., commonly shortened to EBT, was fixed upon the powerhouse department store that was the birth of Petticoat Lane. The business led to two more locations, one on the Country Club Plaza and the other in Independence.
The changing ways that people bought merchandise, including the more modern option of indoor shopping malls, sealed the fate of EBT. In 1968 the company closed its doors for good.
For more than 80 years the EBT building was a time capsule of memories and historic charm; it was even protected on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite this, UMB Bank purchased the building and demolished it in 1972 to make way for a more modern structure.
In September 1979, 89 years after the famed building opened its doors to the public on Petticoat Lane, UMB Bank opened EBT restaurant in their building at I-435 and State Line Road. Artifacts saved from the old Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. dry goods store, including two elevator cages, were featured in the restaurant until it closed its doors for good after a final New Year’s Eve celebration in 2015.
Hall’s Stationers & Engravers
Founded in 1910 by Joyce C. Hall, Hallmark is iconic with Kansas City history. But Hall’s department store has a unique beginning that didn’t start with designer clothing.
In the lobby of the Gordon and Koppel Building in 1913 J.C. Hall displayed papers and postcards offered by his fledgling company. Three years later he opened a small storefront on Petticoat Lane near Emery, Bird, Thayer.
Hall’s entire business was based on postcards and papers. But what set Hall’s aside from everyone else was the evolution of the card. Postcards didn’t have enough room to write long messages on them, so J.C. Hall created the 4×6-inch card folded and placed in an envelope–what we know today as the modern-day greeting card.
At their storefront on Petticoat Lane, however, the Hall brothers ran into a major problem. At the height of the Christmas rush, their store on 11th Street sold out of the tissue-style wrapping papers common at the time. Not wishing to disappoint their loyal customers, brother Rollie Hall raced to their warehouse to find a solution.
He found fancy envelope linings with patterns on them that were imported from France. They threw these sheets on the floor and slapped a 10 cent price on them. They were immensely popular and stronger than the thin tissue labeled as wrapping paper.
Two years later they added this new industry standard to their manufacturing line and modern-day wrapping paper was born.
Hall’s expanded on Grand Avenue in 1950 as the greeting card company grew worldwide. The downtown location on Petticoat Lane closed in 1973 and they opened a new high-end store at Crown Center. In 2013 they closed their Plaza location for good.
In 1928 an advertisement boasted, “One always expects to find something original at Hall’s.” Today, shoppers can still find high-end clothing and gifts at their only remaining store at Crown Center.
Originally called the Parisian Cloak Company, Harzfeld’s at 11th and Main was the leader of women’s and children’s clothing in Kansas City. Opening in 1891 just after EBT, the Parisian Cloak Company started with the idea that women were going to leave the sewing machine and buy ready-made clothing.
Even though their address was technically on Main, Harzfeld’s real estate stretched down 11th Street, popularly known as Petticoat Lane. In November 1913 an 11-story building opened across the street to service women and children with the finest clothing offered in the city.
When it started in Kansas City, the Parisian Cloak Company had stores in St. Louis and Chicago and was under the leadership of Sieg Harzfeld. Born in 1867 in Buffalo, N.Y., he came to Kansas City in 1890 and opened a chain of the Parisian Cloak Company that his father was running in Chicago.
Parisian Cloak Company officially became Harzfeld’s and solidified its position as one of Kansas City’s leading department stores. Harzfeld, who died in 1944, was known as a fine man to work for and for giving warm-hearted attention to children in his store.
Harzfeld’s later added locations in Lawrence, Columbia, on the Plaza, Blue Ridge Mall, Corinth Shopping Center and Metcalf South. In 1959, the company went public and in 1972 Harzfeld’s was bought by Garfinckel, Brooks Bros., Miller and Rhoads. Slowly but surely, the once-famed local department store closed its doors at each location. By 1984 the last of Harzfeld’s was no longer.
Petticoat Lane Lives on in Memories
As the movement for indoor malls and modern nationwide companies took over, the lure of traveling downtown to Petticoat Lane came to an end by the 1970s. Today iconic images of Petticoat Lane showcase how hopping on a streetcar to shop in Kansas City’s first clothing retail center was an integral part of our history. Petticoats weren’t just worn to go shopping–they were proudly purchased there.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com