Our second installment of NOLA History Guy December features Maison Blanche.
Maison Blanche Department Stores – NOLA History Guy December
Simon J. Shwartz was an experienced realtor. He grew up in the family business, A. Shwartz and Son. Simon was the third son of Abraham Shwartz. With two older brothers working with their dad to run the shop in the Touro Buildings, S.J. went up to New York City. He became the store’s buyer. He came home to work in the store in the late 1880s, and married the daughter of Isidore Newman, a successful banker.
After the devastating fire in the Touro Buildings (the 701 block of Canal Street) on February 14, 1892, S.J. moved the family business up the street to the Mercier Building at 901 Canal Street (corner Dauphine). The family then re-built the 701-block store. S.J. was at a crossroads.
Creating Maison Blanche
Shwartz restored the success of A. Shwartz and Son after the fire, but his brother wanted to bring the store back down the street. So, S.J. pitched an idea to his father-in-law. He wanted to open the first true “department store” in New Orleans. Up until this point, “dry goods” stores like his family’s, the Fellman’s, and Daniel Henry Holmes’ store, serviced the city. They were joined by boutiques, like the Krausz Brothers shop at 811 Canal Street. Shwartz wanted to acquire the entire Mercier building, and he needed an investor.
Newman liked S.J.’s concept and backed it. Shwartz purchased the building, evicting Leon Fellman (who moved his store to the Pickwick Hotel Building at 800 Canal). Shwartz remodeled his building’s interior. By the Fall of 1897, he was ready to open.
The “Brain Trust”
Newman’s investment had strings attached. He had Shwartz hire Gus Gus Schullhoefer, Newmman’s brother-in-law, and Hartwig D. Newman, his son. They were smart guys, and gave Newman some eyes loyal to him inside the business. When Maison Blanche opened on October 31, 1897, the Daily Picayune gave over most of their front page to the store’s opening. In addition to details on the store, they profiled the three top executives. Here’s the caption for the image in the paper from the book:
The Maison Blanche Brain Trust. Isidore Newman’s son-in-law, S.J. Shwartz, his brother-in-law, Gus Schulhoefer, and his son, Hartwig Newman, were the first management team of Maison Blanche, from a profile piece in the New Orleans Picayune in 1897.
Into the 20th century
The was a success from the start. While it would be another fifty years until their precious Christmas Mascot, Mister Bingle, made his debut, Maison Blanche quickly earned their tagline, “Greatest Store South.”
Maison Blanche Department Stores
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley
From the back cover:
On October 31, 1897, S.J. Shwartz, Gus Schullhoefer, and Hartwig D. Newman–with financial backing from banker Isidore Newman–opened the Maison Blanche at the corner of Canal Street and Rue Dauphine in New Orleans. Converting Shwartz’s dry goods store into the city’s first department store, the trio created a retail brand whose name lasted over a century. In 1908, Shwartz tore his store down and built what was the city’s largest building–13 stories, with his Maison Blanche occupying the first five floors. The MB Building became, and still is, a New Orleans icon, and Maison Blanche was a retail leader in the city, attracting some of the best and brightest people in the business. One of those employees, display manager Emile Alline, created the store’s second icon, the Christmas character “Mr. Bingle,” in 1947. Mr. Bingle continues to spark the imagination of New Orleans children of all ages. Even though Maison Blanche has become part of New Orleans’s past, the landmark Canal Street store lives on as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
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Stores like 1303 St. Ann Street were a common sight in the Treme.
1303 St. Ann Street
Painting of the corner store at 1303 St. Ann Street by Boyd Cruise. Here’s the description of the painting from THNOC:
View of a corner building in Faubourg Tremé with a grocery sign. Parts of the rain gutter and gallery railing are missing.
The location is currently part of Armstrong Park, across from the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Chase painted 1303 St. Ann Street in 1938. Chase painted a lot of locations at this time for various federal projects.
This building displays a “Grocery” sign and two coffee advertisements, one for Luzianne and one for French Market. Even though Prohibition ended five years earlier, the store may not yet have returned to alcohol sales.
The owners chose not to put a name on their sign. That’s not surprising for the 1930s. Most customers shopping here walked from around the corner. While the big stores on Canal Street installed air-conditioning in the early 1930s, this store likely relied on fans and open windows. Without refrigeration, they offered dry goods, canned foods, flour, spices, etc. Neighbors looking for meat and seafood still walked over to the Treme Market. The transition to a wider inventory would have started at this time, but WWII slowed the process down for ten or so years.
Alvik Boyd Cruise was born in 1909, and came to New Orleans in 1928. Read this great profile of him at 64 Parishes. His body of work contains a number of architectural paintings commissioned for a Historic American Buildings Survey of the French Quarter. The National Park Service started the HABS project in 1933. It’s currently administered by the NPS and the Library of Congress. The HABS survey of Canal Station is a great example of the product.
64 Parishes notes that Cruise made use of “plan books” archived at the Orleans Parish Notarial Archives to create representative portraits of various structures. While 1303 St. Ann Street isn’t explicitly listed as one of HABS paintings (the survey was for the Quarter), it’s certainly of that style.
Cruise later became the first director of The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Stuffed Bingle hit his stride in the early 1950s.
Santa and Mr. Bingle on the front of Maison Blanche, 901 Canal Street, in 1952. Stuffed Bingles were sold on the Third Floor. (Franck Studios photo courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection)
Jingle Jangle Jingle!
The story of Mr. Bingle is Chapter 3 of my book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, from Emile Alline’s preliminary doodles to the puppets, to the Big Bingle that rules Celebration in the Oaks at City Park. That story is now seventy-five years old and going strong.
Mr. Bingle was one of those marketing ideas that was a winner from the beginning. It did take some time to make that happen, though. Alline’s imagination became doodles, then sketches to pitch management. Then the ad department took over, and the little snow elf was in the corners of ads every December.
Stuffed Bingle Prototype
After Mr. Bingle took over the full-page ads, The little guy needed a three-dimensional presence. Alline ordered a fifteen-inch Bingle doll.The doll helped ad development, since he could be posed and photographed with merchandise from the store.
That prototype evolved into the puppets. Oscar Isentrout connected Alline with a German puppet-maker. They copied the prototype doll, creating two Bingle puppets. One puppet stayed at the store. Oscar went around town with the other puppet, doing shows at the branch stores. Oscar performed the voice of the Bingle puppet for those shows, along with the wonderful WDSU-TV commercials.
Bingles for Everyone
Stuffed Bingle in an ad for Maison Blanche in the Times-Picayune, 19-December-1949.
By 1949, the success of print advertising and Oscar’s puppet shows created a demand for Bingles for the kids. The prototype inspired a lasting product:
in big 16″ size
He’s in softest rayon Plush and an exact reproduction of the jolly Mir. Bingle seen in MB’s famous Puppet Show. tots adore him.
In addition to the 16″ Bingle, MB offered him in 11″ for 1.98 and 20″ for 4.98.
To encourage continued sales, MB began branding the Bingles with the year on his foot. Now, families bought Bingles for newborns, etc. As Stuffed Bingles grew in popularity, the dolls spread out to other chains owned by Mercantile Stores. That holding company owned Maison Blanche, along with a dozen other stores. I was totally mind-blown in 1996, when on a business trip to Fargo, ND. As I walked through West Acres Mall (home of the Roger Maris Museum), I stepped into DeLendrecie’s Department Store. There was Mr. Bingle! But of course, a snow elf in snowy North Dakota!
Maison Blanche Halloween wasn’t a big deal. Christmas was the big deal.
Atrium at Maison Blanche, Lake Forest, mid-1970s. T-P photo.
Maison Blanche Halloween
Interior shot of the Maison Blanche store in The Plaza at Lake Forest. The store opened in 1974. The store incorporated many of the design features of the one in Clearview Shopping Center in Metairie. This photo features the open-air center atrium. The escalators stood on either side, with the Fine Jewelry department on the ground floor. The mall-side entrance to the store stood to the photographer’s left. First floor departments included cosmetics, jewelry, candy, juniors and menswear. Retailers always believed menswear should be easily accessible, on the ground floor.
“You’ll be a sleeping beauty in dreamy sleepwear by Gilead…short waltz length nylon tricot gowns with matching coats…” – women’s sleepwear, items a husband or boyfriend find difficult to buy as gifts. So, appeal to the ladies directly, before the Christmas ad onslaught.
This ad, from the Times-Picayune, on 31-October-1978, is a great example of how seriously Halloween was a part of the chain’s Fall marketing. Yes, there’s nothing in the ad for spooky season. That’s because Halloween is merely a blip on the radar. The focus for department stores like MB was always the post-Thanksgiving shopping season. While stores like Spirit Halloween, Party City, discounters like K-Mart, and the old five-and-dimes offered what you needed for Halloween, MB and its competitors didn’t bother. Setting up for Halloween required taking space from multiple departments. The managers of those departments and the buyers they worked for balked at disrupting the holiday mojo. September heralded the “Pre-Christmas” promotions. Those sales carried on through November. The day after Thanksgiving marked the formal start of the Christmas season. To set up displays for special merchandise at the end of October, only to break them down days later made no sense.
Halloween in Men’s Suits
So, Maison Blanche Halloween wasn’t a thing. In fact, I took the day off when this ad ran in 1978. The “Haunted House” we held at the Lambda Chi Alpha (University of New Orleans) house in Gentilly needed more help than the Men’s department at MB Clearview. Since we worked on commission, my colleagues certainly didn’t miss me on a slow night.
Hope your Halloween was a good one! This post goes up a day late, but that’s OK, because we’re still in the middle of All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls.
Maison Blanche Gentilly was the second store off of Canal Street.
MB Gentilly, 1948. Franck Studios via THNOC
Maison Blanche Gentilly
Franck Studios photo of Maison Blanche Gentilly in 1948. The department store opened its third store just off Gentilly Boulevard, at Frenchmen Street. This strip mall anchored a large commercial development near the corner of Elysian Fields Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard. Other stores in the strip at this time include Walgreens, Morgan and Lindsey (a five-and-dime store) and Capital Stores Supermarket. A huge billboard for JAX Beer stands above the Walgreens. The MB is the only two-story store.
The intersection of Elysian Fields and Gentilly Blvd grew into an important commercial area towards the end of the 19th century. The Pontchartrain Railroad operated along the length of Elysian Fields, from Chartres Street to Milneburg at the lake. The railroad marked the road along the Gentilly Ridge, Gentilly Road, the half-way point of the route. The train stopped there if a passenger notified the conductor. The train also stopped for pick-up if it was flagged down. The rail stop evolved into a local hub. The Zuppardo’s parked their produce truck there. That evolved into a brick-and-mortar store. Several Jewish congregations purchased the high ground on the ridge. They built cemeteries there, so they could bury their loved ones in-ground.
World War II
After the war, men and women came home, ready to start families of their own. Developers created subdivisions around the commercial hub. While housing remained segregated, Pontchartrain Park opened as a subdivision for Black families. So, more businesses opened. The Frenchmen strip mall reflected that demand. Residents of Gentilly appreciated the convenience. Instead of taking the Gentilly streetcar (on Franklin) or the Elysian Fields bus into the CBD, they shopped at Maison Blanche Gentilly.
T-P ad, 24-October-1953
“The Woman who works shops at MB for smart, thrift-wise wearables” in this ad in the Times-Picayune, 24-October-1953. MB enticed the working woman with nylon blousettes, wool suits and dresses, and butter calf handbags. With the Gentilly Store, woman shopped without having to schlep back downtown!
Westside Shopping Center was anchored by MB’s fourth location.
Architectural rendering of the re-vamped MB Westside, 1970.
Westside Shopping Center
A re-vamped Maison Blanche Westside was featured in the store’s employee magazine, “Shop Talk,” on 1-February-1970. The store, opened in 1958, as the shopping center’s anchor. After ten years of operation, MB upgraded the two-story location, bringing it into the 1970s. Westside was MB’s only location on the West Bank. The shopping center stood at the corner of Stumpf Boulevard and West Bank Expressway. The open-air strip mall extended out on either side of MB.
The Stumpf family acquired an extensive parcel of land in Gretna in 1901. It stood undeveloped for the first half of the 20th Century. In the 1950s, Dr. John F. Stumpf, a dentist planned a shopping center development. The center would front the new West Bank Expressway. The expressway was built to connect Gretna with the anticipated “new” bridge crossing the Mississippi River.
Unfortunately, Dr. Stumpf passed away before Westside’s completion. Other family members, notably his father, Archie C. Stumpf and uncle, State Senator Alvin T. Stumpf.
Full-page ad for the grand opening of “West Side Shopping Center,” 31-January-1958. Times-Picayune.
Westside Shopping Center opened on January 31, 1958. Dr. Stumpf’s daughter, Susan, dedicated the center. Governor Earl K. Long and Gretna Mayor William J. White spoke. After a flyover of jets from Naval Air Station New Orleans in Belle Chasse, shoppers filled the new stores.
Maison Blanche ad for Westside in the Times-Picayune, 31-Jan-1958.
Maison Blanche welcomed old and new patrons. Additionally, three shoe stores, Rexall Drugs, F. W. Woolworth, Labiche’s Lerner’s, Stein’s, and Western Auto, among others, opened for business. A&G Cafeteria, McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe, and National Food Store offered various foods, and a Gulf Oil Service Station stood ready to gas up the packed parking lot.
Westside versus Oakwood
The Record Department at MB Westside, 1970
The Greater New Orleans Mississippi River Bridge opened on April 15, 1958. As the west bank grew, a second shopping center opened in Gretna. Oakwood Shopping Center, anchored by D. H. Holmes, offered indoor, air-conditioned connections to its stores in 1966.
Sign for Maison Blanche in the parking lot of Westside, August, 1958. Sonny Randon Photography via the West Bank Beacon.
In many ways, Westside and Oakwood operated similarly to Lakeside and Clearview in Metairie. It wasn’t difficult for shoppers to hop from MB in one to Holmes in the other. After ten years of operation, MB decided Westside needed a facelift. Oakwood presented a newer, more modern location. So, Maison Blanche upgraded Westside. The company touted those upgrades to employees, generating pride and excitement.
Thanks to the Gretna Historical Society for their article on Westside and the Stumpfs.