A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Friday 6 May 2011

Looking Back At C.F. Hovey's of Boston

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!

Today, I share the tale of a store that has the distinction of being the first department store in Boston.

This legendary store also had the pleasure and ultimate bad luck to share (for most of its life) the same city block as my beloved, Jordan Marsh Company.
Many an older Bostonian recalls with anger the loss of this once popular and trusted retail friend to Jordan Marsh’s growing hunger to expand, thus swallowing it slowly...bit by bit during the years 1947 to 1956.

Let us now pay a call on the historic C. F. Hovey Company of Boston...a store that even survived the great fire of Boston in 1872 with its stone building proudly standing amid the wreckage of old Summer Street.

Hovey’s was started by Boston businessman, Charles Fox Hovey in 1833. He was a wholesale dealer in dry-goods and soon went into partnership and opened a small store in the downtown area. In 1848 the store was called, C.F. Hovey and Company and soon found its way to Summer Street and a larger newly constructed premises by 1857. Mr. Hovey was an innovator and believed in profit sharing schemes for his workers and early closing hours so employees could have some quality leisure time outside of the store. He wanted to know what his workers thought and encouraged them to speak up. His death in 1859 caused great sadness in Boston and he was always remembered as that kindly, hard-headed Yankee entrepreneur with a fine store on Summer Street named after him.

The account of how a team of loyal employees back in 1872 grabbed woolen blankets from the counters inside the store, soaked them with water and then placed them all over the roof and front of the building to protect it from flying cinders is such an amazing and truly courageous event from that tragic fire that claimed so much of old, downtown Boston.

The store grew and prospered on Summer Street, expanded to several buildings of various heights and in 1914 officially became The C.F. Hovey Company...the & was dropped.

The store maintained a series of connected buildings having ample store fronts on Summer, Chauncy and Avon Streets. The buildings had a large renovation in the mid-1930’s just after the 100th anniversary celebration and the store was considered at the time to be very much “up to date” and keeping with the times in retailing trends. I love the way they call their basement...“Hovey’s Downstairs”...a touch of class!

It is interesting to note that in 1925 the Jordan Marsh Company did manage to take over Hovey’s and take complete control of all their buildings and land in a very well orchestrated move. Jordan Marsh swore at the time to keep Hovey’s a separate store and not alter its identity. This promise was kept and Hovey’s was truly its own store right up until 1947.

I must confess that I am very much a Jordan Marsh “lover and devoted fan” but this tale of Hovey’s proves that Jordan Marsh Company did have ulterior motives in the acquisition of this great old, Boston enterprise. Jordan Marsh spent many years taking over buildings one by one on the famous city block of Washington, Summer, Chauncy and Avon Streets. Jordan Marsh, like all the other larger Boston department stores, had their eyes on size and expansion. By the 1940’s, Jordan Marsh wanted to build the largest store in New England (and beyond!)and that meant…they needed to swallow all the rest of the buildings left on the block...chiefly...Hovey’s!

In early 1947, Jordan Marsh Company quietly began to break a few walls down (literally) inside the two stores and in a grand announcement in May...Hovey’s and Jordan’s were to be united as one super store with the snip of a ribbon. Hovey’s lost its independent status as Boston’s oldest department store and was absorbed into Jordan Marsh Company and that was that. Jordan Marsh moved into the newly acquired buildings and reorganized staff and merchandise. All employees were more or less retained and customer charge accounts were converted to Jordan Marsh Company ones over time. The familiar “Hovey’s” logo was used less and less as the year moved on...Jordan Marsh replaced all the exterior store signs with their own...and the store ads for the Jordan Marsh Company began to fondly refer to the “Hovey Building” as if it were just a department rather than a store. By 1948, Hovey’s no longer used their original logo in any print ads at all and the Jordan Marsh Company had begun the largest and most aggressive store building project that Boston had ever seen.

Jordan Marsh now had control of the entire city block that its main store was housed on and the large ultra modern “super store” it had been planning for years began to emerge. The first “unit” of three was begun when the former Hovey Company building on Chauncy Street and a few smaller ones were razed in late 1948.

Jordan Marsh used the remaining Hovey buildings, including the original one that bravely took on the great fire of 1872, until the second “unit” of the new super building along Summer Street was about to be built...and then in mid-1950...the wrecking ball got busy again.

All that remained of Hovey’s was a section of one of its older buildings that fronted on Avon Street. This section of building was surrounded by the new “units” one and two of Jordan Marsh on two sides and a section of the older Jordan Marsh main building. Though now chopped in half (it used to go completely through from Summer to Avon Street with store frontage on both) and connected to Jordan Marsh in various ways...it was still known as...“The Hovey Building” in the press and by all the employees at the time. Stories were told of how it used to vibrate and wobble because of all the heavy construction going on all around it...and under it! A complaint about its safety was even lodged in the mid-50s. The customer who complained was told not to worry...it was due to be knocked down in 1956 to make way for “unit” three of the new “super” building! And it was.

So, Hovey’s thrived in Boston from 1833 to 1947. Another interesting note...early ads place the date of the store founding in 1841...then in the late 1920’s...it suddenly became 1833. Possibly records of Charles Fox Hovey’s early career came to light and moved the date earlier...or maybe celebrating the BIG 100th before any other Boston stores did was behind this change of date. I can only conjecture...who knows?

But Hovey’s was here. It played the retail game well and made a name for itself.
As time goes by, all the names fade and we begin to forget that where Macy’s now sits used to be a place called Jordan Marsh Company...and inside the belly of that formidable whale sits not Jonah...but the C.F. Hovey Company.

So, if you are in Boston and walk by the 1949-1951 building(units one and two) of Macy’s down along Summer to Chauncy Street...Well, you are standing where the oldest department store in Boston once stood! Neat fact! Tell a friend!

Enjoy!! Charles:-)




PS....I am still looking for memories of Jordan Marsh for the JM memory project I am putting together...write me!!!


Mark B. said...

That's a new name to me.

Anonymous said...
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fraz said...

Wow! Very cool to learn of the pre-Jordan's history. Makes me want to go a-wandering 'round Downtown Crossing. Great article, Charles! :-)


Charles Boston said...

Thanks...I do enjoy sharing what was in Boston....once upon a time:-)

jr said...

I remembered when I was a child in the early 60's my mother referring to the hovey bldg ... I so enjoyed reading this and look forward to more. I have such sweet memories of downtown in the early 60's and it's history.

northwren said...

I recently ran across a small pair of scissors with C.F. Hovey & Co. Boston on one side and Germany on the other.I now know that it is pre 1914 because of the "&", but I would like to know more about them. Has anyone seen scissors like mine?

sloths14 said...

Cleaning out an attic and found a sterling silver brooch in a box. It still had the price tag 69 Cents with C.F. Hovey on it.