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A look back at Utah's ZCMI —'America's first department store' — on its 150th anniversary

On October 15, 1868 — 150 years ago today — Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution was formally organized. This Utah department store began as a small wholesale cooperative in Salt Lake City and eventually expanded to incorporate well over 100 branches, playing a significant role in Utah's economy for more than 100 years.

In honor of this sesquicentennial anniversary, here's a look back at six things you may not know about ZCMI.

Pioneer colonizer and Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young organized the institution and was its first customer.

In "ZCMI," a history of the mercantile company, Martha Sonntag Bradley describes the circumstances that led to ZCMI's founding.

This undated photo shows the ZCMI textile department on Salt Lake City's Main Street.
This undated photo shows the ZCMI textile department on Salt Lake City's Main Street.
Utah State Historical Society

Nearly two decades after settling in the Salt Lake Valley, a breach had developed between Latter-day Saint business leaders and "gentile" merchants. Brigham Young and other church leaders feared those who opposed the church were attacking its members though price gouging. To combat this, Young encouraged Saints to boycott these merchants in 1865 and thereby "ceas(e) to pad the pockets of those who sought destruction on the church," Bradley writes.

By 1868, these trade tensions were complicated by the looming completion of the transcontinental railroad and the new business it would certainly bring, Bradley notes. In order to shore up the Saints' economic independence, Brigham Young introduced the concept of a mercantile cooperation entirely owned and operated by Latter-day Saints at the church's October 1868 general conference.

In "Great Basin Kingdom," historian Leonard Arrington records Young's simple stated goal for the new institution: "To bring goods here and sell them as low as they can possibly be sold and let the profits be divided with the people at large."

On Oct. 15, 1868, the proposed mercantile cooperation was formally organized and funded during a meeting of prominent Utah church and business leaders in Salt Lake's City Hall, according to Bradley.

Brigham Young was elected president, Bradley writes, and on March 1, 1869, Young made the first ZCMI store purchase in its first headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City's Eagle Emporium: $1,000 worth of goods for his large family.

Early ZCMI experienced great success and quickly expanded.

Heinz vinegar is displayed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on May 13, 1908.
Heinz vinegar is displayed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on May 13, 1908.
Utah State Historical Society

The institution's sales totaled over $1.25 million in its first year. By 1870, 150 cooperative branches were established throughout Utah territory and as far away as Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to Bradley.

Bradley also notes that in the 1870s and '80s, ZCMI sales represented about one third of the total expenditures in Utah.

Each branch displayed a "Holiness to the Lord" sign above its front door and sold goods, often produced by Latter-day Saints, at standardized low prices.

The main downtown Salt Lake City location was consolidated into a department store in 1876 and expanded and modernized in three major phases ending in 1901. The sprawling structure, with its impressive three-story cast iron facade, welcomed customers in that location for 130 years.

ZCMI sold everything — from clothing and carpet to wagons and machinery.

Soda fountain waitresses are photographed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on May 19, 1937.
Soda fountain waitresses are photographed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on May 19, 1937.
Utah State Historical Society

In its early days, coal oil lamps lit the main Salt Lake City location and customers deposited their payments in large black kettles, which were periodically hauled away by clerks for counting.

As the institution grew, ZCMI established its own factories. The "Big Boot" shoe factory opened in 1870 and manufactured 83,000 pairs of shoes each year. In 1872, ZCMI opened a clothing factory as well, producing its own line of work clothes, including the famous ZCMI "Mountaineer" overalls. According to Bradley, these overalls quickly grew popular and cultivated a broad consumer base from Canada to Mexico.

Fashion became a major part of ZCMI's brand, particularly in the post-WWII era, and the institution served as "an arbiter of taste and style" for many, according to Bradley. In 1940, Mademoiselle magazine chose ZCMI as one of its college fashion headquarters, Bradley writes. ZCMI frequently staged fashion shows (hosted by Vogue and other prestigious brands) and even Ms. and Mr. ZCMI contests.

ZCMI is often referred to as the first department store in America.

Bradley traces this title to a 1933 book called "Famous First Facts" by author Joseph Kane. She explains that there are at least five other contenders for this title, including Macy's and Marshall Field, but notes that ZCMI's claim is "particularly convincing."

According to Bradley, the world's first department stores originated in Paris during the 1850s when companies like "Au Bon Marche" sold goods as varied as an international bazaar. This same unique structure, "where several individual merchants pooled their resources and retained management of their separate areas," defined ZCMI from its earliest days in rustic and remote Salt Lake City, Bradley writes.

While ZCMI may or may not be America's first department store, it can boast a variety of other firsts.

The organization was the country's first department store to establish its own clothing factory. Bradley notes it was "one of the first stores in the West to use women as salesclerks," the first company in Salt Lake City to employ delivery wagons and, in 1920, the first to have its own motorized fleet of delivery automobiles.

Other notable innovations include ZCMI's escalator, which in 1946 was the first to be installed in the Western United States, according to Bradley. ZCMI was also famous for its elaborate light displays, first introduced only two years after the invention of the electric light bulb, Bradley writes.

ZCMI's headquarters officially closed in 2007, but memories of the institution that long resided at the heart of Utah business and culture remain.

After many decades of success, financially troubled ZCMI agreed to sell the department store chain to St. Louis-based The May Department Stores Co. in 1999, although its stores remained closed on Sundays and retained the ZCMI name.

Hats are displayed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on June 2, 1943.
Hats are displayed at ZCMI on Salt Lake City's Main Street on June 2, 1943.
Utah State Historical Society

In 2001, all ZCMI locations except the flagship Salt Lake City department store were rebranded as Meier & Frank, and in 2005 they became Macy's.

Finally, in 2007, the beloved Salt Lake City ZCMI mall was demolished to make way for the new City Creek Center shopping destination.

In the midst of ZCMI's decline, some looked back fondly at ZCMI of decades past, reminiscing about afternoons spent prom dress shopping or riding the escalators. Older Utahns recalled the days when a trip to ZCMI was a special event that called for their Sunday best.

While ZCMI's glory days have long passed, a reminder of the pioneer-era department store still stands in downtown Salt Lake today. City Creek shoppers can glimpse the historic ZCMI facade, restored and installed on the west face of Macy’s, harkening back to the early days of Utah industry.