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#SouthofUnionSquare: Department Stores and the New Woman

In the later years of the 19th century, the area South of Union Square became a hub of consumerism, bringing in department stores like Macy’s to entertain a new wave of capitalism. One of these stores, later featured in the works of artist Isabel Bishop, was Hearn’s Department Store. Established in 1879 by James A. Hearn, the legendary department store offered a wide range of products, all conveniently located under one roof. The store was located at 4-14 West Fourteenth Street and remained steadfast in its location as the area around Union Square began to change.

Hearn’s Department Store, 1916 – Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Initially deemed an elegant hub of fine goods and clothing, the commercial uses around Union Square eventually pushed out residential ones, and the area’s prestige slowly declined. Over time, it became a haven for an eclectic and increasingly less elegant array of businesses. At the Fourteenth Street Theater at 143 East 14th Street (demolished), owner Tony Pastor phased out the original performances that took place on stage with more tawdry modes of entertainment, such as burlesque and vaudeville. Despite this shift, department stores like S. Klein would put down roots in the area in 1902, while other major stores such as Macy’s moved uptown at the turn of the century.

Tony Pastor’s 14th Street, 1895 – Via Museum of the City of New York

By the early 20th century, the neighborhood became a bustling hub of the garment industry, and Hearn’s transformed into an accessible and reliable store for middle- to lower-class New Yorkers. The store also hired thousands of women, and witnessed a record-breaking increase in sales. As the area surrounding Hearn’s settled into this new phase, residential projects in the East Village produced an additional customer base for the store. Hearn’s, among other commercial structures in the area, regained its retail prowess. 

This new era of Hearn’s Department Store was highlighted by Isabel Bishop in her paintings of the “New Woman” that frequented the store in the 1920s and 1930s. In her art, this new demographic was beautifully documented, and she often used the doors of Hearn’s as a backdrop. Her artwork was important in shifting the culture of female representation at that time. Close acquaintances of Bishop’s, such as Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller, also participated in documenting the women that frequented these stores. This musing of the working woman became common in various artworks completed by the artistic residents within the area South of Union Square.

Isabel Bishop, Fourteenth Street, 1932 – Image via Radford.edu
Isabel Bishop, Hearn’s Department Store-Fourteenth Street Shoppers, 1927 – Image via VB Museum.
Kenneth Hayes Miller, The Fitting Room, 1931

You can learn more about the artists in this neighborhood and our campaign to designate the South of Union Square area here. This week, our Birthplace of American Modernism Tour takes place, featuring the many artists that frequented or resided within this area. You can see all of our tours and events here, including information on our Village Awards this evening at 6PM.

Sources Cited:

  • Between Heaven and Hell: Union Square in the 1930s, 1996
  • The New Humor in the Progressive Era, 2014
  • The “new Woman” Revised, 1993

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