AskDefine | Define Gimbel

Extensive Definition

Gimbel Brothers (Gimbels) was a major American department store corporation from 1887 through the late 20th century. The name is often misspelled with an apostrophe.



The company, founded by a young German-American (Bavarian) immigrant, Adam Gimbel, began as a general store in Vincennes, Indiana. After a brief stay in Danville, Illinois, Gimbel relocated in 1887 to the then boom-town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While the new store was an immense success, quickly becoming the leading department store in Milwaukee, Adam Gimbel, with seven sons (and another adopted), saw that one store, no matter how successful, would not accommodate his family's future.
With, as a joke of the time put it, "a surplus of capital and a surplus of Gimbels," in 1894 he acquired the Granville Haines store in Philadelphia, and in 1910 opened another branch in New York City. With its arrival in New York, Gimbels prospered, and soon became the primary rival to the leading Herald Square retailer, Macy's. This rivalry entered into the popular argot: "Would Macy's tell Gimbels?" To distinguish itself from its Herald Square neighbors, Gimbels advertising promised more: "Select, don't settle."

Going public

This was so successful that in 1922 the chain went "public," offering shares on the New York Stock Exchange (though the family retained control.) This provided the capital for expansion, starting with the 1923 purchase of across-the-street rival, Saks & Co., which operated under the name "Saks Thirty-Fourth Street"; with ownership of Saks came a new, about-to-open uptown branch, Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1925 Gimbel's entered the Pittsburgh market with its purchase of Kaufmann & Baer's. Also acquired in this transaction was Gimbels third radio outlet: WCAE. The company already owned WGBS in New York and WIP in Philadelphia. Although this expansion spurred talk of the stores becoming a nation-wide chain, such hopes were ended by the Great Depression. The more-upscale (and enormously profitable) Saks Fifth Avenue stores did continue to expand in the 1930s, opening branches in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.


Despite its limited presence, Gimbels was well known nation-wide, in part due to the carefully-cultivated rivalry with Macy's, but also thanks to an endless stream of publicity. The New York store got considerable attention as the site of the 1939-40 sale of art and antiquities from the William Randolph Hearst collection. Gimbels also got an abundance of publicity from the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. (An homage to the film was paid in the 2003 comedy film Elf which offered "Gimbel's" as the fictional setting of the title-character's workplace.)

Flagship store

Gimbels New York flagship was located in the cluster of large department stores that surrounded Herald Square. Designed by architect Daniel Burnham, the structure, which once offered 27 acres of selling space, has since been severely modernized and now houses the Manhattan Mall. When this building opened in 1910, a major selling point was its many doors leading to the Herald Square subway station; thanks to such easy access, by the time Gimbel's closed in 1986 this store had the highest rate of "shrinkage," or shoplifting losses, in the world. Doors also opened upon a pedestrian passage under 33rd Street, connecting Penn Station to those subway stations. This "Gimbels Corridor" was closed in the 1970s for reasons of liability. After conversion to the Manhattan Mall, parts of the former store were occupied by a mid-town branch of Brooklyn's Abraham & Straus and still later by Stern's. The building that housed a Gimbel's branch at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue remains, but has been converted to luxury apartments.


Interestingly enough, despite being the first to introduce so many now standard products and practices, Macy’s was not the first department store to host a Thanksgiving Day Parade. In fact, the idea of a department-store parade originated in 1920 with Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia.

Acquisition by BATUS

Gimbels was acquired in the 1970s by BATUS Retail Group, the American retailing arm of British-American Tobacco, which eventually owned Marshall Field's, Frederick & Nelson, The Crescent stores, and Kohl's.
BATUS organized the Gimbels chain into four autonomous divisions: Gimbels New York, Gimbels Philadelphia, Gimbels Pittsburgh, and Gimbels Milwaukee. Each division operated independently of each other in terms of advertising and buying. Each division offered their own credit card which could only be used at another Gimbels store in that same division. In the early 1980s, Gimbels New York and Gimbels Philadelphia were combined into a single entity, Gimbels East.

Closure of Gimbels

Unable to create a strong identity for this collection, BATUS in 1986 sold the Kohl's stores and, unable to find a buyer, closed down the unprofitable Gimbel chain. Some of the more attractive branches were taken over by Stern's, Pomeroy's (Allied Stores), Kaufmann's (May Department Stores, ironically now part of the corporate family of rival Macy's), or Boston Store (P.A. Bergner & Co.) The "cornerstone" of the chain, the downtown Milwaukee store where Adam Gimbel had first found success (and alleged to be the most profitable Gimbel store), was handed to former BATUS sister-division Marshall Field's. After a few uncomfortable years trying to be a mass-market retailer, Fields gave up in 1997, closing the Milwaukee store and selling off the remaining Gimbels branches it held, except for the Hilldale store in Madison, Wisconsin, which became Macy's in September 2006.

Gimbels trademark

The "Gimbels" trademark was eventually owned by siblings Mark and Beth Gimbel, who are not directly related to the originating family; Mark Gimbel is owner of the Smiling Cow and Gimbel's Country Store in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. They acquired the trademark in 1999 after Gimbels department stores went out of business and the trademark was abandoned.

In popular culture

  • The Gimbels-Macy's rivalry plays a key role in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.
  • "Heavens to Gimbels!" is a frequent catchphrase of Jim Backus' character Hubert Updike III on The Alan Young Show. Backus also utters the phrase in his role as a genie in the 1948 Bugs Bunny cartoon A-Lad-In His Lamp.
  • In the I Love Lucy episode "Lucy and Ethel Buy The Same Dress" Lucy buys her dress from Gimbels and Ethel buys her dress from Macy's.
  • The 1967 film Fitzwilly climaxes with the title character (played by Dick Van Dyke) leading an elaborately-staged robbery of Gimbels on Christmas Eve.
  • In the 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead, there is the Gimbels of the Monroeville Mall when one of the four Philadelphians pick up dead bodies in two flatbed carts that are taken to the refrigerator of one of the restaurants.
  • In the 1997 movie Out to Sea, one of the main characters was a clerk at Gimbels.
  • In the 2003 Christmas movie Elf, Buddy the elf (Will Ferrell) works at Gimbels in New York City.
  • In The Simpsons episode, "The Twisted World of Marge Simpson," Marge opens a pretzel stand much to the chagrin of rival Falafel stand owners Edna Krabappal and Agnes Skinner. The following exchange is had:
Marge: "Excuse me. I had this spot first."
Edna: "Sorry dear, just business. Ha!"
Marge: "Well, I guess Macy's and Gimbels learned to live side by side."
Agnes: "Gimbels is gone, Marge, long gone. You're Gimbels."
  • In the 2005 movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Eddie (Vince Vaughn) explains to John Smith (Brad Pitt) that John and his wife's assassin organizations are direct competitors, namely, "You're like Macy's and Gimbels."
  • The comic strip Retail by Norm Feuti takes place at a store called "Grumbel's".
  • Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell), in the 1958 film Auntie Mame, yells to a customer who just got her fired from selling roller skates at Macy's, "Don't forget the skates for the little nippers... GET 'EM AT GIMBELS!"

Former Gimbels locations

Gimbels New York

*Bridgeport - Lafayette Plaza

Gimbels Philadelphia

*Moorestown - Moorestown Mall (later Stern's, then Ports Of The World, now Boscov's)

Gimbels Pittsburgh

*East McKeesport - Eastland Mall (mall torn down)

Gimbels Milwaukee

*Appleton (opened 1971, converted to Marshall Field's in 1986, closed 1991)
  • Cudahy - Packard Plaza (closed 1986, now smaller stores)
  • Greendale - Southridge Mall (converted to Marshall Field's in 1986, became Prange's in 1989, then Younkers in 1992. Younkers closed 2000 and is now Linens 'n Things and Steve & Barry's)
  • Madison
  • Milwaukee
    • Capitol Court (opened as Schuster's 1956, later Gimbels, then Target; mall torn down)
    • Mitchell Street (opened as Schuster's 1914, closed 1984, now smaller stores)
    • Northridge Mall (converted to Marshall Field's in 1986, became Prange's in 1989, then Younkers in 1992. Closed 2000, now vacant; rest of mall being torn down)
    • Shops of Grand Avenue (converted to Marshall Field's 1986, closed 1997; now offices, apartments, and Borders)
    • Third Street (King Drive) (opened as Schuster's 1884, closed 1967)
    • 12th & Vliet (opened as Schuster's flagship, closed 1950s)
    • Southgate Mall (became Boston Store in 1986, closed 1993)
  • Wauwatosa - Mayfair Mall (became Boston Store in 1986)Was divested by Gimbel's when BATUS purchased Marshall Field's (which had the other anchor at Mayfair Mall)



  • Harris, Leon. Merchant Princes. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
  • Mahoney, Tom, and Leonard Sloane. The Great Merchants: America's Foremost Retail Institutions and the People Who Made Them Great. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
  • Ferry, John William. A History of the Department Store. New York: The MacMillian Company, 1960.
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