Frederick & Nelson

Frederick & Nelson was one of Seattle’s foremost department stores and was considered by many to be a Seattle institution. Founded by partners D.E. Frederick and Nels Nelson in 1890 as a second hand furniture store on Seattle’s Front Street, the store expanded steadily in its early years, starting with the sale of new furniture after the acquisition of the Queen City Furniture Co. in 1891. Early on, the store provided home delivery service, using its fleet of horse drawn delivery wagons. Among the store’s early customers were the local Native Americans, prospectors heading to the Yukon and the new hotels which had sprung up to accommodate the prospectors.

The store moved into the Rialto building at 2nd and Madison in 1897; the business gradually developed into a department store under the partners’ philosophy that their store should provide whatever merchandise their customers ask for. By 1906, Frederick & Nelson had annexed more space in the Rialto building, opened its first tearoom and introduced ready-to-wear men’s and women’s fashions, a novel alternative to fine clothing made-to-order.

Founder Nels Nelson fell ill and died on a New York bound steamer in 1907. Under the leadership of D.E. Frederick, Frederick & Nelson continued to grow, and by 1914, D.E. decided to build a six-story store at 5th Avenue and Pine Street. Though detractors referred to the decision to build outside of the city’s retail district as “Frederick’s folly,” the store, designed by architect John Graham, was an instant success. The new store included a tearoom, beauty salon, post office, auditorium, nursery and a fully equipped medical facility. The store also hosted many events, such as the weekly fashion shows staged each Wednesday in the tearoom.

In 1929, at age 69, D.E. Frederick decided to retire, selling the store to Marshall Field & Co. for six million dollars. In spite of the initial concern of its customers about Frederick & Nelson becoming part of a vast retail system, the store continued to grow both as a business and as a Seattle tradition. Marshall Fields executive William Street was hired to run Frederick & Nelson in 1938, and he guided the store through its successful period from the recovery after the Great Depression, through the World War II period, the post-war boom and the store expansion and growth of the 1950s. For example, Frederick & Nelson became involved in the war effort in the 1940s, opening a temporary branch store on the grounds of the Boeing’s No. 2 plant and winning a special merit award for its promotion of war bonds and stamps in the war loan drive. Later, as people began moving to the suburbs after the war, the first of the suburban branches opened in the Bellevue Shopping Square in 1946. After a major renovation, the flagship Seattle store reopened with 10 floors above ground and 12 shopping levels.

Over the years, Frederick & Nelson had supported the local community, for example by promoting the Seattle Symphony with special display windows and its black tie “Symphoneve” benefits. Its auditorium was also used by art groups as well as by civic organizations.

Though the tradition of in-store Christmas caroling by staff began as early as1918, the store tradition of the Santa Claus window at 6th and Pine began in 1943, with children posing with Santa for a holiday photograph.

Business eventually began to decline as discount retailers attracted customers and increasing control by the Marshall Fields inhibited local decision-making. In 1982, Batus, Inc. bought Marshall Fields & Co. and Frederick & Nelson became part of Batus’ retail division. Continuing to lose money, Frederick & Nelson was sold in 1989 to local investors who sought to restore the store’s reputation. Losses continued to mount, however, and the store filed for bankruptcy in 1991, finally closing its doors on May 31, 1992. The building was sold to Nordstrom, which reopened the building as its flagship store in 1998.

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History in Motion: Frederick and Nelson

Seattle’s late great local department store Frederick and Nelson is nowadays just a memory. But, it was big news in the early 1950s when the store (once located in what is now the flagship Nordstrom location downtown) doubled in size with a major expansion project. This film commemorates the new Frederick’s of 1953. Courtesy of MOHAI

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