Renowned actors William Powell, Joan Crawford and Jeanne Eagels have a common thread in addition to their profession – all three worked at Kansas City, Mo.’s oldest department store in their youths. With job titles such as salesgirls and floorwalkers, the soon-to-be actors offered up anything from golf clubs to feather boas and mourning veils to Kansas Citians.
Emery, Bird and Thayer became the king of “Petticoat Lane” – the nickname for the shopping district surrounding it. The company began in 1846 as Coates and Bullene, then became Bullene & Brother, and then just plain Bullene, followed by Moore, Emery & Co and finally settling as Emery, Bird and Thayer in a brand new building at 11th and Walnut streets – they’d already outgrown two prior locations.
The original building façade touted red brick and pink sandstone; an addition was made in 1900 and the building received a fresh coat of cream and gold paint. An impressive row of clocks hung above the first floor elevators showing times in major cities around the world (fun fact: after the Pearl Harbor attacks during WWII, the Tokyo clock was removed). Up the elevator one would find Emery, Bird and Thayer’s famous Tea Room, where anyone might have a spot of the drink, and the company even hosted tea parties for the city’s children.
Notoriety further emanated from the old department store. Well-known cartoonist Frances Williams (with strips appearing in nearly fifty newspapers) and illustrator Edna Marie Dunn (founder of her namesake Kansas City school of fashion) both got their start as ad sketch artists at Emery, Bird and Thayer. In 1935, Herbert Wilson took the presidential post at the company. Wilson just happens to be the inventor of boxer shorts.
Though “The Southwest’s Greatest Merchandiser” eventually closed, and the building razed in 1973, Emery, Bird and Thayer left a deep impression on the city.