W.A. Wieboldt Company

Firm founded 1884, closed 1957

Flagship store: 1279 Milwaukee Avenue
Built 1898

During the early twentieth century, German-American retailer W.A. Wieboldt built one of Chicago’s largest and most famous retailing chains. From a small storefront shop on North Avenue, Wieboldt gradually expanded his operations, first by opening small department store on Milwaukee Avenue in 1884 and later by establishing a chain of neighborhood-oriented department stores that challenged the dominance of the Loop as the city’s retailing center. By the end of the 1930s, there were six Wieboldt stores in operation across the city. Known for their good values, unpretentious merchandise, and multilingual sales staff, the stores were especially popular among ethnic, working-class shoppers who could not afford or did not like to shop at the big downtown department stores.

Milwaukee Avenue Store

Wieboldt’s flagship store was located on the northeast side of Milwaukee Avenue near Ashland, in the heart of Chicago’s densely populated, ethnic, working-class Northwest Side. William A. Wieboldt had moved his firm to the Milwaukee Avenue business corridor from its original Near North Side location in 1884. Over the years, expansion yielded a store nearly as large as many of the Loop’s department stores. However, unlike his State Street competitors, Wieboldt reveled in the ethnic character of his store’s neighborhood. He catered to the needs of immigrants and the working poor and enjoyed the company of local residents. As one biographer put it, Wieboldt “preferred the friendship of the ‘little people’ and rarely was seen in what is called ‘high society'” and “often enjoyed a game of skat [a German card game] with fellow merchants in his neighborhood.”

Lincoln-Belmont Store

Opened in 1917, W.A. Wieboldt Company’s second department store was located between Lincoln and Ashland Avenues, just north of Belmont. The main building provided North Side shoppers with seven floors of merchandise, as well as a bargain basement. In 1924, an annex to the store was constructed across School Street and consisted of two floors and a connecting basement to the larger building. The annex has been demolished, but the main store building remains, having been converted into condominiums in the 1990s.

West Side Store

The third Wieboldt’s store was located on the south side of Adams Street between Ashland and Ogden Avenues on the city’s west side. Designed by the famed Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the nine-story store opened in 1925.

Evanston Store

In October 1929, Wieboldt’s purchased Rosenberg’s department store of Evanston. The old Rosenberg’s store became the fourth outlet in Wieboldt’s growing chain of mid-sized, value-oriented department stores.

Rosenberg’s was founded in 1883 and described itself as “The North Shore’s Greatest Store.” The Rosenberg family no doubt had many reasons for merging with the Wieboldt chain. One factor was certainly Evanston’s declining economic isolation from Chicago’s Loop and Uptown retail markets. Throughout the 1920s, improved transportation links and intense marketing campaigns made the Loop department stores both more accessible and more indispensible than ever before. Squeezed by the robust competition, many smaller, suburban stores such as Rosenberg’s were compelled to either close or sell out to larger chains.

In classic pre-Depression advertising hyperbole, Wieboldt’s championed the acquisition of Rosenberg’s as an economic boon to Evanston’s shoppers. The new store, it was promised, would offer the suburb’s residents “the tremendous resources of an institution of $25,000,000 in sales” and “a price policy that offers more and better merchandise at prices lower than ever.” In the late 1940s, Wieboldt’s Evanston store moved from the old Rosenberg’s location at Davis and Benson into a new and strikingly modern building on the northeast corner of Church and Oak.

Englewood Store

The Wieboldt’s branch store in the Englewood shopping and entertainment district was the firm’s fifth outlet. Wieboldt’s had set the trend for Chicago department stores when it first expanded beyond its flagship store in 1917, thus creating a nascent “chain” of stores that could purchase collectively and pass on to customers whatever savings was thus gained. The Englewood branch was located on the southwest corner of 63rd and Green Streets, one block west of busy Halsted Street. Construction of the seven-story building was begun in October of 1929, with the formal opening coming in September of 1930.

Sources: Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 March 1924, 5.

Image source: W.A. Wieboldt & Co., “Chain Store Economy Applied to Department Stores,” advertisement, in Chicago American (8 Sept. 1925), 16; Untitled postcard, unknown publisher, n.d.