Weinstock, Lubin, and Co. was a Sacramento shopping institution for over a century. With theatrical window displays, a unique children’s department, and a touch of big city fashion, the store beckoned to customers from throughout Northern California. In this interview with History Press West, Annette Kassis shares some of the history behind Sacramento’s signature department store and previews her new book: Weinstock’s: Sacramento’s Finest Department Store.
What are some of your favorite Weinstock’s anecdotes from former employees or customers? Do you have any Weinstock’s memories of your own?
AK: My personal memories of Weinstock’s come from two very different vantage points in my life. I was one of the younger children in my family, and I remember as a little girl going to Weinstock’s with my mother to pick out Christmas gifts for my older sisters. These were simple things like stockings and handkerchiefs, but to me these were the glamorous things that meant one was “grown up.” My family moved out-of-state when I was 11and I returned to Sacramento after college. My interaction with Weinstock’s resumed in my early twenties. When my husband Rich and I married in 1985, we were registered at Weinstock’s, and I still have some of the stuffed Weinstock’s Jingle Bears that were part of their Christmas promotions in the 1980s. As an adult most of my shopping trips to Weinstock’s were either at Arden Fair Mall or Sunrise Mall. The significance of both those locations is noted in the book; a lot of memories came flooding back as I was doing the research.
The milk bar featured a crescent-shaped counter and little seats with everything sized for children. A store employee working behind the counter offered children their choice of white or chocolate milk. –Weinstock’s: Sacramento’s Finest Department Store
One of the wonderful things I learned about employees as I was researching the book was that many of them—from all eras—had rather lengthy careers at the department store. There was a real emphasis on positive employee relations and it showed in how long-term employees were celebrated annually at the store’s huge anniversary party. Two of my favorite anecdotes come from two completely different eras. The first is the little girl who put on an amazing show in the display window of the 1891 store during opening week, and then who came back to work at the store some years later as a saleswoman in the glove department. The second is the story of a buyer at the very beginnings of computerization who wrote her own computer program for her job and was awarded with a “portable” computer. She was one of the first buyers to haul a computer to New York and use it to get ahead of her competition as they all vied to place orders with Liz Claiborne.
What role did David Lubin and Harris Weinstock play in the larger community? How are they thought of today? Is their legacy still felt in the region?
AK: Their legacy is felt without people even realizing it. In their own time, Lubin and Weinstock were responsible for a number of progressive business and labor practices that ended up having a ripple effect on other businesses in the community. They were well-known in the region in their time. In fact, David Lubin became quite well-known both nationally and internationally. He even shows up as a character in an H. G. Wells novel. In terms of what people might overtly recognize, the Crocker Art Museum exists in large part because David Lubin suggested to Margaret Crocker that she turn her home and private art collection over to the City of Sacramento. And each year, the David Lubin Elementary School holds their annual Mother’s Day weekend East Sac Garden Tour, a somewhat fitting fundraiser for a school named for the man who committed his life to aiding the world’s farmers and who founded what became the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
When David Lubin sought to open his new dry goods emporium in Sacramento, he was charting new territory…. Lubin settled into the space, made shelves, set up a counter made from dry goods boxes covered with an oil cloth, and hung out his sign: D. Lubin, ONE PRICE. –Weinstock’s: Sacramento’s Finest Department Store
What are some of the innovations that Weinstock’s brought to local business practices? Can you explain the overalls?
AK: Ah…the overalls! In addition to being the forward-thinking merchant of a small dry goods store, David Lubin was also an inventor. He held several patents, and one of his earliest was for the “endless-fly overall.” Railroad workers in the Sacramento area complained to Lubin about the inferiority of the overalls he received from his supplier. It seems these overalls had a tendency to split open at the crotch. Lubin designed a pair of overalls with an innovation that prevented them from splitting open. He hired workers, supplied sewing machines and manufactured the overalls here in Sacramento, then sold them to the railroad workers for half the price of the riveted overalls that were nearest in quality. When Lubin saw a problem, he had a tendency to walk straight into it and do something about it. The overalls were a testament to that!
But the business innovations Harris Weinstock and David Lubin instituted had the greatest impact. Weinstock, Lubin & Co. was an early adopter and proponent of the eight-hour workday. The company also instituted an employee profit sharing plan in the 1880s, purchased a vacation retreat for employees and their families to use, and insisted that children working at the store attend school during work hours and still be paid wages for that time. There was always a spirit of treating employees well and providing avenues for advancement. Even after the era of the Lubin and Weinstock families, the store continued to be progressive. One of the most surprising things I learned in my research was that in the post-World War II era Weinstock, Lubin & Co. appointed a woman as its president. They were only the second store in the country to do so, right behind Lord & Taylor in New York. It was rare to find women in executive positions in American Department stores before the 1970s, let alone as president of the company.
How is the Weinstock’s story similar to or different from that of other landmark department stores across the country?
AK: The differences reside largely in the innovations and in the involvement the founders had in so many different aspects of the community. These men were far more than a couple of Sacramento merchants!
As far as similarities are concerned, Weinstock’s and other landmark department stores held a unique position in the community. These were places where people gathered and where some of the local events were centered. In addition, people across the country came to rely on these department stores to show them what items were required for middle class life and how those items were to be used. There were similarities in the difficulties as well. For example, as the automobile became more prevalent Weinstock’s—just like other department stores across the country—struggled with how to accommodate parking. And like other department stores, they had to find a way to entice an increasingly suburban population to continue to shop with them.
What marketing strategies did the store use to appeal to Sacramentans? Can you describe some of the window displays?
AK: The display windows were amazing. Weinstock, Lubin was part of the leading edge of display window use, and their 1891 store was designed with the newest ideas of merchandise display in mind. Prior to the mid-1880s, show windows as we think of them were virtually non-existent. In fact, displaying in that manner would have been considered tasteless. People like L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, pioneered the theatrical window display. Over time you see Weinstock, Lubin displays becoming more and more artistic, and sometimes they would dramatically “reveal” the windows to the crowds gathered outside. They even had live displays from time-to-time. In the 1920s, a Paramount Pictures movie actress “lived” in the display windows of Weinstock, Lubin for one week. In the post-World War II era, sportscaster Tony Koester recreated Sacramento Solons “away” baseball games as live broadcasts from the corner window of Weinstock’s at 12th and K Streets. During both World War I and World War II the display windows were used to encourage the purchase of war bonds—some were fairly graphic including a window that invited customers to “Autograph your own Bombs for Tojo or Hitler,” and a display of Nazi “trophies” sent from Germany by a Sacramento soldier.
When Weinstock’s closed its doors, how was that absence felt in the community? Did other institutions step in to fill the gap, or did the store’s closure signal the end of an era?
AK: I’d have to say it was the end of an era. By the time Weinstock’s and other department stores across the country were closing we were already seeing the beginnings of what we have today. Go to any major mall in any part of the country and you see many of the same stores and very little local character. When Federated made the decision to kill the Weinstock’s name and extend their Macy’s brand, it really was the end of an era. Of course, people’s shopping habits had changed, too. Smaller specialty stores like The Limited and The Gap were gaining in popularity, and major stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s had seized market share in the region.
Can you explain the Archive Crawl planned for this October?
AK: This is a wonderful event! October is National Archives Month, and to celebrate the Center for Sacramento History, California State Archives, California State Library and Sacramento Public Library host a one-day opportunity for the public to go behind-the-scenes, talk with archivists and special collections librarians and see some of the items that don’t get in front of the general public very often. This year’s theme is “Building Sacramento/Building Communities.” The Archives Crawl will be Saturday, October 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Attendees can start at any one of the four locations; you pick up your passport at the first stop and get it stamped as you “crawl” from site to site. Last year I worked at the Center for Sacramento History (the archive for the City and County of Sacramento) where I helped Sr. Archivist Patricia Johnson conduct tours of the vault. This year I’m planning to be back and working the vault tours again, and we are talking about having some of the items from the Weinstock, Lubin Collection out and available for viewing as part of the vault tour. I hope to help visitors make the connection between an archive like the Center for Sacramento History, the kind of material that’s in an archival collection, the process of researching a collection and the writing of a book like Weinstock’s: Sacramento’s Finest Department Store. It’s important for the public to understand the value of these places and how they are used. The event is free and it really is a fun time! I’ll update details of the event on my Web site, www.kassishistorical.com, or people can check www.sacarchivescrawl.blogspot.com for more information.
Annette Kassis studied history at California State University, Sacramento and the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a historian and researcher specializing in media, advertising, mass consumption and consumerism, and popular culture, and her past work experience includes almost twenty years as co-owner of Sacramento-based advertising agency, K&H Marketing, LLC. To learn more visit www.kassishistorical.com.