One hundred years ago in Washington, the retail trade consisted of several dozen "dry goods" shops, an unbelievably large number of shoe stores and some sprawling food marketplaces.
With a permanent population of some 160,000, plus another 25,000 residents who came to town only when Congress was in session during the winter months, the small shops along Pennsylvania Avenue took care of all the business there was.
But the 1880s were to be turbulent years, with labor strife and tight-money woes. An age of great technical progress also was dawning, with introduction of the electric light blub and electric street car.
Street lighting came to Washington early in the 1880s, modernizing a city already beautified and expanded through massive public works projects in the previous decade.
It was at the end of the great post-Civil War public building era in Washington, in 1879, when Boston merchant Samuel W. Woodward stopped in town to look over the city.
In 1873, he had joined partner Alvin Mason Lothrop in opening a small store in Chelsea, Mass. But they soon became convinced there was little growth potential in the New England area long before there was talk of a Sun Belt.
Woodward started to study other cities, with the intention of relocating. He visited Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore and other cities as well as washington. In the end, his choice was the capital city, because of the growth and expansion potential he found while others shunned Washington as a small, southern town populated by civil servants and no industry.
Only a decade earlier, there had beena movement to transfer the nation's capital to some other city, and partisans of St. Louis had even raised money to help finance a relocation to the banks of the Mississippi.
But the rejuvenation of Washington in the 1870s had ended such talk, and Woodward saw a great, untapped market in its formative stages. He and Lothrop moved here from Massachusetts and opened their "Boston Dry Goods House" at 705 Market Space, with 1,700 square feet of selling space and a staff of 35.
Woodward's and Lothrop's enterprise began business on Feb. 25, 1880. It was a Wednesday and the weather was unusually mild. The news of that day, a century ago, was not a lot different from today. Politics (an abortive drive to select U.S. Grant for a third term, after he had been out of office) and Russia (a plot against the Czar) dominated front pages of The Washington Post.
Inside the newspaper, there was news of declining stock prices, a fire in Georgetown, a Post Office scandal ($802 stolen from dead letters), an advertisement for a three-story, $15,000 house, and a big display by Woodward and Lothrop. "Goods freely shown. No one importuned to purchase," said the ad, which also emphasized goods for sale: black silks, French novelties, linens, laces, gloves and men's furnishings.
With such items and much more (although the French novelties remain an historical oddity), Woodward and Lothrop has been growing with the Washington area ever since. Often a trendsetter over its first century in business, the retail business that has become know popularly simply as Woodies, also has mirrored problems and hopes associated with the development of Washington as a modern business center.
There were periods in the history of Woodies that the retail firm was stodgy and too conservative, but the same could be said of Washington as a community. And, if the 1970s were years of rebirth for the Federal City, the same could be said for Woodies. It is a company which modernized itself and its merchandising concepts in the past 10 years under the current board chairman and chief executive, Edwin Hoffman, who moved here in 1968 after serving as president of Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and Higbee's in Cleveland.
When he came here for a job interview, he had some spare time and walked over to the Reflecting Pool, then populated by disgruntled, dissatistifed people in what was known as "Resurrection City." He recalled later that it seemed "there were still sgins of smoke rising from the city and Washington certainly was a discordant place to be at that time in history."
But he happily accepted the Woodies offer (from a grandson of one founder) and since has surrounded himself with key executives who are regarded as among the best in American retailing, including President Waldo Burnside.
When Woodward and Lothrop started their business, it was revolutionary in retail concept. And today, the modern Woodies is a very unusual American enterprise -- one of a handful of important local department store retailers that remain independent of the national chains. Some retailers that opened before Woodies, such as Lansburgh's have failed. Others, such as the Hecht Co., have been acquired by national firms (May Department Stores, in the case of Hecht's).
Moreover, there has been an impressive array of retail newcomers to compete with Woodies in the era after World War II, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Neiman, Marcus, Bloomingdale's and I. Magnin.
Still, Woodies today is stronger in the marketplace and stronger as a company than at any time in its history. Unlike at many companies, executives of Woodies have seen changes in the air and adapted to the future. By the time Bloomies finally got its first doors open here, for example, the merchandising techniques that have made the New York retailer something special were being used by Woodies.
"We're in the fashion business as it pertains to women's, men's, children's and home furnishings merchandise," is the way that Burnside describes his business today. "we provide a wide range of merchandise to a broad customer base, but we are not all things to all people."
During the 1980s, Woodies will be in the vanguard of long-time Washington oriented business that are making a stake in a much greater Baltimore Washington marketplace as the source of future growth, a combined region that would be the nation's fourth largest in population and richest in income.
As part of a five-year, $60 million capital improvement and expansion program, Woodies is building a store in the northeastern section of Baltimore County, scheduled to open in the summer of 1981.
This is a profound commitment to a regional economy that many businesses here and in the Baltimore area see as the most important potential development for the balance of this century. But Woodies has a history of initiatives.
In 1880, retailers in Washington and elsewhere sold goods on what could be described as a negotiated price basis. Store owners placed cost codes on merchandise and sales people could ask any price above that level. If a sale failed, the sales person often followed the customer to the door, decreasing the selling price little by little in a haggling process. If a price was agreed upon, the sale was final; there was no exchange of merchandise or return of money to a customer.
Woodward and Lothrop, who had met in 1870 while learning the retail business, didn't like this system. At their first store in Chelsea, they initiated a "one-price" system that in subsequent years became standard throughout the business.
Washington merchants were shocked by the "one price" system when the Boston merchants introduced it at their new store a century ago. There was another shock when word got around town that the Boston merchants had given a customer new fabric when the taffeta in her gown split.
More raidcal moves followed quickly A big newspaper advertisement, a form of marketing that was unprecedented, caused some merchants to predict imminent failure for Woodward and Lothrop. Then there were the bright summer goods showcased in windows as snow was falling outside. Finally, there was the "ruinous" move away from the then-existing small business center to F Street NW in the mid-1880s.
Business had been good from opening day in 1880. Woodies moved to a larger building, with five floors and a steam-powered elevator at 921 Pennsylvania Ave., in less than a year. And when the need for more space was evident, the retailers decided to build at 11th and F, where the business has had its headquarters since 1887.
As benefits a successful enterprise, the history of Woodies is rich in tales and evidence of growth: Buildings were added along F and G streets downtown in the 19th century; Woodies was the first retailer to use live models to display women's gowns; a competitor (Palais Royal, located in what is now the North Building along G Street, with branches at the Pentagon and in Bethesda) was acquired in 1946; and a suburban expansion boom was started with a Chevy Chase store in 1950, continuing with construction now for a new branch at Fair Oaks in Fairfax, to open next July.
Including stores in Columbia and Annapolis , Woodies operates 14 department stores today, and annual sales are approaching $300 million. The company has more than 8,000 employes; and descendants of the founders are still associated with the enterprise. A. Lothrop Luttrell, grandson of founder Lothrop, served as chairman until 1978 and continues as a director; Andrew Parker, grandson of Woodward, is now vice chairman.
In 1930, William K.Cooper assessed the success of Woodward and Lothrop.
They had, he said, "an unwavering faith in Washington. In their vision they saw a city constatnly enlarging its popualtion, rebuilding it structures and becoming more and more the center of the best life in the nation. . . . They believed in Washington and built accordingly."
Of their successors today, it could be said that the vision has been expanded to include a greater Washington region that expands north to the Pennsylvania border and deep into Virginia to the south and west, where future population growth is expected to be the greatest.
"Until now, our goals, and objectives were such that we felt certain priorities relative to Washington had to be accomplished before expanding into other markets," Hoffman said.