Thursday, 1 April 2010
Myer's in Melbourne
For Melburnians, the Myer department store is an integral part of the city landscape. I've never really thought about how long it's been around or who started the company, but recently I came across some interesting reading about the founder of Myer. Currently the largest chain of department stores in Australia, Myer's (as it was known in the beginning) was founded at the beginning of the last century by a relatively poor Russian migrant called Sidney Myer, who arrived in Melbourne in 1899.
Sidney Myer (born Simcha Myer Baevski) was born in Kritchev in 1878, the youngest of eleven children. His father was a Hebrew scholar, and his mother owned a drapery store, which as a teenager he helped to manage. In 1899, at the age of 21 and with very little money, he migrated to Melbourne to join his elder brother Elcon.
The two brothers worked briefly in Slutzkin's underclothings business in Flinders Lane, Melbourne before opening a small drapery store in Bendigo in 1900, shown above. Despite his rudimentary English, Sidney was forced to sell fabric, stockings and haberdashery door-to-door to make ends meet. Later, business picked up, and the brothers opened a second store in Bendigo in 1908.
In 1911, Sidney purchased a well-established drapers shop in Bourke Street, in the centre of Melbourne. He bought several adjoining shops, and the building of the Myer Emporium was completed in 1914. As well as selling fabrics and ready-made women's clothings, the Emporium boasted a fur department, a travel department (presumably selling luggage), and a department selling floor coverings such as linoleum and rugs, as well as a creche, a luncheon hall and rooftop garden, and a bargain basement. It was also possible to shop by phone or mail, and have your goods delivered.
Through the State Library of Victoria site, you can view online the Myer Mail-order catalogue for Spring/Summer 1933-4, and the Autumn/Winter 1935 catalogue online.
In 1931, the Bourke St store was replaced with the striking Art Deco building that we know today, in the Interwar Period Commercial Gothic style. The painting above was done in the 1930s. Remember that this was during the Depression, so you can imagine how well the Myer empire was doing. The work had to be done in 24 hour shifts so that the store would be open for Christmas 1933.
The new Myer Emporium included a dining hall on the sixth floor, which while not in use today, is apparently still accessible by the public. A ballroom-sized space with a double staircase and three massive chandeliers, the walls are decorated with murals commissioned by Sidney Myer to depict women through the ages. They were executed by Australian artist Napier Waller, who also designed the stained glass and mosaics at the Australian War Memorial. Amazingly, he had lost his right arm in the war, and taught himself to paint with his left hand, going on to become Melbourne's prime mural artists! Below is a detail of the mural.
Sidney Myer was a great philanthropist, supporting cultural and economic causes. In 1929 he funded the first open-air concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. In 1931 he was one of the instigators of the Buy Australian Campaign, which aimed to keep manufacturing jobs in Australia. During the Depression in the 30s, rather than let people go, he and all the staff took a pay cut. He financed a Christmas dinner every year for 10,000 unemployed people, held at the Royal Exhibition Building, which included a gift for every child By 1934, the Myer business was employing 5300 people, and staff were provided with medical and nursing aid, and rest homes at the seaside and in the Dandenong Ranges. It is not suprising that when Sidney died that year, 100,000 people attended his funeral.
By the end of the 1950s, Myer's catered for just about anything a shopper could want. As well as selling clothing, homewares and much more, you could also do you banking there, go to the post office, book theatre shows or see a travel agent. There were services for the cleaning and repair of clothes and shoes, and you could have your furs stored over the summer. As well as the Mural Hall Dining Room, there was the upmarket Golden Cages cafe, as well as the more affordable Cafeteria, Basement Coffee Shop, and several snack bars, plus an extensive Food Hall for buying fresh produce. There were also three high end beauty salons - the Antoine Salon, Cyclax, and the Helena Rubinstein Salon, as well as a larger and cheaper salon on the floor below.
Today, the Bourke St Myer store is a much more ordinary shopping experience, without many of the added services that 1950s customers expected. No more food halls, cafes and restaurants, and certainly no fur storage services! For more history on the Myer's Emporium, have a look at The Gay Provider: The Myer Story by Alan Marshall from 1961, or the more recent biography, Sidney Myer: A Life, a Legacy by Stella Barber, published in 2005. Or visit the State Library of Victoria's free exhibition on the history of shopping in Melbourne, called 'Til You Drop: Shopping - A Melbourne History, which is on until October 2010.