At the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, Tacoma was rich with department stores.  Gross Brothers, built in 1889 at the current site of the Pantages Theater, was the first.  Peoples Store followed six years later at the southeast corner of 11th and Pacific, and then Stone-Fisher-Lane on the corner of 11th and Broadway in 1905. The new Rhodes Brothers department store, modeled after Philadelphia’s Wanamakers and Chicago’s Marshall Fields, opened on Nov. 8, 1903.

Rhodes Brothers began as Rhodes delivery wagons, with Albert, William, Henry and Charles Rhodes delivering tea and coffee throughout Pierce County, and taking orders for the next week’s deliveries.  Before moving to the address most people recall, at 950 Broadway, Rhodes Brothers was at four other addresses.

Rhodes’ grand opening lasted three days during which an orchestra played continuously. In recognition of the store’s horse and buggy days, one of its fixtures was a chandelier made from three old wagon wheels. Other than that, mahogany and large plate glass were the main features for both the building and the display cases.

The new building had three 120 feet by 110 feet floors.  A mezzanine between the first and second floors was divided with a ladies’ lounge/rest area on one side and an eight-person cashiers’ cage on the other.  Lawson’s cable carriers connected the cashiers to the various departments.  The first floor was dress goods, men’s wear, some domestics, candy department and Bargain Square.  The entire north side was the tea and coffee department, personally handled by Henry Rhodes.  Four electric mills ground coffee beans under the attention of “uniformed nurses.”  Saturday shoppers received complimentary cups of coffee.

Kitchenware, infants’ wear, a suit department, and fitting rooms were on the second floor.   Seamstresses had space on the third floor and handled alterations.  They shared the floor with furniture, art and framing, and a large basket department.  All totalled, the store employed 100 people, of whom 15 were delivery men.  It also owned four delivery wagons from which pairs of men made daily deliveries. Cars replaced the wagons in 1912. The clerks were well-screened and trained in efficiency and courtesy. The females wore dark dresses with white collars and cuffs in the fall and winter and dark skirts with white blouses in spring and summer. The men dressed in suits.

Thanks to hundreds of signs reading “All Roads Lead to Rhodes,” almost everyone in south central Puget Sound knew about Tacoma’s new department store.  The signs, which included the number of miles to Tacoma, were placed as far south as the Columbia River and east to the Grays Harbor area.  The Rhodes signs were Washington’s first highway signs.

Rhodes Brothers was definitely the place for upscale shopping, but to stay on top Rhodes continually made improvements:  1905, a sprinkler system, 1907, the first expansion, 1908, a tearoom, 1911, a major addition that doubled the store’s size.  The top floor now had a dining room that sat 300. The tables were covered with white, linen tablecloths and napkins, and crystal vases held fresh flowers. Lunch was served daily, and dinner served 1-2 nights a week. Favorites on the menu were broiled crab, mulligawney (sic) soup, clam chowder and Rhodes’ cheesecake.  In 1914, the store added a rooftop garden just off the Sixth Floor Tea Room. Lunch was served daily from 11:30 until 2 p.m.; afternoon tea daily from 2 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. and evening dinner was served on Saturdays from 5:30-7 p.m.

One of the department store’s most interesting features, though, was its date book.  Every morning for many years, a lady named Marguerite Darland set out pencils and replaced the paper in an appointment register where people could leave messages.  Wives left word for their husbands as to where the car was parked, women left short groceries lists, girls broke dates, shoppers arranged to meet friends.  Some notes were in code, others in a foreign language.  One squabbling couple left messages that became ever less vitriolic until they eventually made up.  Newspapers called it an index of life.

In 1920, the Rhodes Brothers, in need of more floor space, purchased the Judson Building across the alley, created an annex, and built a sky bridge between the two buildings.

Henry Rhodes retired in 1925, but that didn’t stop the progress. In 1936, Rhodes became one of the few department stores in the country to have a library annex.  On the building’s sixth floor a librarian took care of seven thousand books, many about etiquette, gardening, cooking and home making, and answered dozens of questions daily.  “How can I test this fabric to see if it is pure silk?”  “What would be a good name for our new baby?”  “Do you have instructions on how to build a cottage?”  When the beleaguered librarian wasn’t advising about hats at a wedding, she was answering questions or finding books for people on banking, finance, salesmanship and any number of other things.

Another favorite feature at Rhodes was the miniature Milwaukee Railroad train, the “Hiawatha”. Throughout the Christmas shopping season, children could ride the “Hiawatha” to the North Pole to visit Santa.

During World War II, Saturday Evening Post made a sixty-four paged, pocket-sized versions of its magazine.  They were called Post Yarns, except by the servicemen who called them dehydrated Saturday Evening Posts.  Post Yarns were available at Rhodes, which also had a special Post Yarns mailing center, and provided free delivery for the miniature magazine plus a personal note from the sender.

Western Department Stores Inc. eventually bought Rhodes and changed the name to Rhodes Western.  And then Amfac Company bought all the stores except those in Tacoma and Lakewood.  They were sold to Frederick and Nelson, which went out of business in 1992.

Tacoma Belles

According to a Tacoma Daily News article dated Nov. 8, 1890, Tacoma was known all over the east coast for having the largest number of single men in any city of comparable size in the country.  There may have been reasons why women avoided Tacoma, starting with hats.

At that time ladies’ hats were in the doghouse, so to speak.  Big hats were back, and women wore huge ones known as the Merry Widow.  Men didn’t like them, and they especially didn’t like them on the streetcars.  Three men not only complained, saying, “A woman’s hat broke my glasses…a woman’s hat severely scratched my face…a woman’s hat broke my derby,” they also filed charges for damages with the Tacoma Traction Company. The men wanted financial compensation and the street car line wanted the hats to go away.  It considered charging wearers double fare.

Men also had issues when it came to the masses of ribbons, felt, and feathers which adorned the Merry Widows.  Simply put, the furbelows obstructed vision.

Tacoma city council members decided enough was enough, and ordered a series of fines ranging from five to ten dollars “to be levied for wearing a hat in a theater or other place of public entertainment.”  The ladies were furious.  Fashion was fashion and where, at the theater, were they supposed to put their chapeaus?

Then the men tried to take it one step further: enforce the same law at church services.  The official reason it wasn’t extended to include houses of worship was the separation of church and state.  The unofficial one was that a big hat provided a handy shield behind which a man could doze.

Men in Tacoma had issues with dresses, too. According to one editorial, dressmakers were so skilled they were able to take several yards of fabric and cut and stitch it so that a woman appeared to be wearing tights, which were illegal, without actually breaking the law.  “Girls, whose minds should be as spotless as an angel’s wings,” the editorialist wrote, “attend their afternoon teas in gowns that are as plastic as Fay Templeton’s dress in Robinson Crusoe.”

Again, city council members went into action.  They ordered police to tear down and destroy “all posters of nude or semi-nude women which were used merely to attract audiences to (burlesque) shows.”  Which brought up the question of the two statues in Wright Park.  “It is certainly not unwarranted,” one newspaper claimed, “that the ankles of these dancing girls are such as to justify their demolition.”

The Tacoma Daily News, which seemed to have a misogynist bend, accused young women of both flirting in church, and of refusing to take their servants there for fear people would ask, “Which is the mistress and which is the maid?”

Of course women hotly denied the accusation.  Servants were hard to come by.  A number of ladies had gone to a slum area and tried to entice some of the young women away from their fast-and-loose lifestyles.  Unfortunately, the wages these ladies offered didn’t compare to the wages of sin.

The ladies must have been thrilled when Colonel Albert Whyte of Tacoma and the Honorable Mrs. Joyce of St. John’s Croft, Winchester, England started working together to bring “fresh, hearty, beef-eating, strong, willing girls” to Tacoma, in order that they might “achieve their greatest desire to work, their ambitions ending at kitchen portals, not extending to the drawing room.”  The women were expected to pay back their travel expenses.

The plan does beg the question, “with Tacoma’s afore-mentioned shortage of marriageable women, why would these young women want to work in someone else’s kitchen instead of their own?”

And then, because the councilmen seemed to spend a lot of time looking at women, it created a dance rule:  “The lady, in dancing, shall place her left hand on her partner’s arm and not on his shoulder or back.”  Men were allowed to accommodate themselves if, “they had a short arm and/or a buxom dance partner.”

According to the New York Times, which felt called upon to report the new rule, “The unhappy part of the situation is that the dance has fallen from the high estate of the days of the polka and schottische.”

Meanwhile, while councilmen were watching and ruling, Tacoma women were initiating a local branch of the Women’s Exchange, an organization started in the 1830s to allow “nice” women to make money by selling goods on consignment. In those pre-social-services days, when working outside the home had a stigma, spinsters and widows had few ways to make a living.

The W.E. matched skills with needs.  Some ladies came in to sell clothing they’d made.  Each item was examined and, if necessary, the seamstress received advice or additional training.  Talented cooks showed up with cakes, pies, bread, and jelly.  In 1890 alone, the exchange sold, on behalf of these women: 1,050 cakes, 600 dozen donuts, 400 dozen cookies, 5,000 loaves of white bread, 2,000 loaves of brown bread and 837 loaves of graham bread.  Exchange members also ran a lunchroom.

People came in to dispose of jewelry, lace, rare books or other items; women came looking for work, a man came to find a housekeeper, children came looking for someone to adopt them.  Through the W.E. seamstresses, house servants, stenographers, and teachers found work

Initially, the W.E. operated out of a room at the Northern Pacific Building.  When success called for more room, the women rented a store on 10th and A Streets. Officers for the organization were elected from a 36-member board.  Women wishing to participate paid annual dues of $2.50.

There isn’t much information about the Women’s Exchange in Tacoma.  Suffice it to say that the city council members seemed to have too much time on their hands.

Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library. Six unidentified men pose with their horses in front of the offices of the Commercial Truck Co. in the early 1900's.
Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library. Six unidentified men pose with their horses in front of the offices of the Commercial Truck Co. in the early 1900's.

In 1891, acting on a tip, an unnamed Tacoma Daily News reporter began an in-depth expose of the cost to maintain horses used for the upkeep of Tacoma’s streets.  The first person he visited was Jay Haskins, Tacoma’s Superintendent of Streets.  Mr. Haskins said that between January and early May, the city purchased feed from three different places:  $300 worth from the Tacoma Trading Company, $322.21 from the Yakima and Tacoma Trading Company, and $45.56 from Birmingham and Tullis.  Then the reporter asked Mr. Haskin how many horses the city had.  And Mr. Haskin said he didn’t know.  He thought seven but went on to say that a city council man named Clinton just bought a team.  For an exact number, he referred the reporter to Mr. Clinton.

The reporter went to Mr. Clinton’s office several times but never succeeded in finding him there.  In desperation he revisited Mr. Haskin and asked if there was a record of the city’s ownership of horses.

“Only at the time they’re purchased,” Mr. Haskin said. “That information is available at the city clerk’s office.”

At the city clerk’s office, the reporter was told that the records only showed when teams were bought.  And on April 26 the Board of Public Works purchased a team for $365.  The clerk thought the city owned three teams.  He suggested the reporter check with the Board of Public Works.

The reporter made an official request for the records from the Board.  The person who responded, a man named Hodgins said he thought the city owned nine horses.

“I want to be sure,” the reporter said.

“Well,” Mr. Hodgins said, “inventory is only taken once a year, but I think the city owns nine horses: four teams and a cart horse.”

So the reporter went back to the Superintendent of Streets.  “Are you sure the city has seven horses?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Haskins repeated.  “Sometimes horses are taken out of the fire department and police department and used on the streets, but I’m pretty sure there are seven.”

The reporter then decided to visit the city stables.  “Where are they?”  he asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Haskins said.

By this time, the reporter was in disbelief.  “You don’t know?” he said.

“No,” Mr. Haskins replied, “but Mr. Clinton does.”

The reporter found the location and on his way there ran into Harry Lillis, Tacoma’s fire chief

“Say chief,” he said, “Do you ever let any of your horses work for the city street department?”

“Under no circumstances.”

“Under no circumstances?”

“Positively, under no circumstances.”

The city’s stable was in an old barn at 512 Seventeenth Street staffed by a stable boss and at least one helper.  The second floor was full of election paraphernalia.  The first floor had three road carts, two buggies and several road scrapers.  The horse stalls were in the basement and had two teams.

“How’s the feed?  Got plenty?”  the reporter asked.  One of the feed bins had only a measure or two of oats.

“Enough for a couple of days.”

Then the reporter asked about the hay.  “I see you have only four bales of about 150 pounds each.”

“That’s right.”

“How many city teams are at work, today?”

“Only one.  They work nights.”

“How many teams are kept in this stable?”


“Where are the others?”

“That’s all there is except the cart horse.”

“Then the city only has five horses?”

“That’s all.”

The reporter gestured toward a team in one of the stalls.  “Well, whose team is that with the blankets on?”

“That’s Mr. Clinton’s”

“And whose is the other one?”

“Well, some say it’s Mr. James’ and some say it’s the city’s, but I think it’s Mr. James’”

“Do they do city work?”


The reporter checked a second feed bin and it was full of fresh oats. “There’s fresh oats here, why do you need to order more?”

“That belongs to Mr. Clinton and Mr. James.”

“Then you feed their horses from this bin?”


“And the bales of hay are theirs, also?”


“So the city is only feeding five horses?”

“That’s all.  Sometimes fire department horses are sent here to do a little work and then they’re fed, too.”

The reporter returned to the newspaper office and called the three companies that had been selling the feed to the city.  None of them had sold hay or grain to either Mr. James or Mr. Clinton.

He summarized his findings as follows:  the city stable boss says the city’s street department owns five horses, the Superintendent of Streets says it owns seven horses and the Board of Public Works says it owns nine.  From Jan. 1 until April 26, the monthly feeding charge was $548.11 or $137.02 a month.

He also worked out the charges depending on how many horses the city actually owned:  three horses, $45.67 a month, five horses, $27.40 a month, and seven horses, $19.57 a month.  Then he posed the question:  can a horse be fed for $19.57 a month?

Livery stables weighed in and said that feed, bedding, water, currying, and boarding a horse ran from $22.50 to $25 a month.  Draymen and teamsters said their monthly charges were from $13 to $18 but $15 was a good average.

Figuring in the stable boss’s wages at $60 a month added $8.55 to the cost and care of each horse. That didn’t include water, bedding, renting the barn and additional stable hands.  The reporter said it would be profitable for the city to board its horses at a livery barn for $25 a month.

Of course, how much would be saved by doing this depended on how many horses were involved.  Even if it owned nine horses, taxpayers had to pay more than a livery stable would charge.

The reporter turned all the figures over to a third City Councilman who promised to investigate.

Karla Stover
Senior Scene

At the Northern Pacific Railroad’s Sept. 10, 1873 annual board of directors meeting, the members chose Tacoma as their new western terminus.  Soon after the company purchased 3,000 acres of land for a town site.

Laying out cities in the 1870s was child’s play.  All that was required was a map and a ruler. James Tilton, who had been surveyor general of the territory back in Isaac Stevens’ era, was still around. The land company handed him a ruler and asked him to start drawing.

Stories at the time claimed that Matthew Morton McCarver gave Tilton a plan that had been used for Sacramento and he used it as his model, or that Tacoma was patterned after Melbourne, Australia.

Tilton’s sketches didn’t survive, but in Oct. 3, 1873 an article in the “Weekly Pacific Tribune” said Tilton simply made a few modifications to the basic grid plan then in vogue, a broad rectangle subdivided into squares. He laid out three main avenues 100 feet wide that paralleled the waterfront, and two others slanting diagonally up the face of the hill.  The slant was a concession to the difficulties that both horse-drawn streetcars and pedestrians would encounter on a direct climb. These five avenues were too broad to degenerate into alleys but not grand enough to detract from the designated thoroughfares. The blocks on either side of them were 120 feet deep.

Tilton left undeveloped an area about 1,000 feet south of the bay in the middle of town for development as a central park or as the campus of a building complex should Tacoma become county seat or territorial capitol. Two smaller parks stood on the north and south flanks of the town.  While Tilton was still making sketches, events and decisions back east aborted his conception. As the sale of railroad bonds slowed after Jay Cooke’s financial empire collapsed, sale of land at the terminus offered the best hope of raising working capital.

The Northern Pacific formed a subsidiary that became the Tacoma Land Company and had the company develop a terminus and sell the town lots. The railroad’s directors then chose C. B. Wright to head the land company. Almost immediately President Wright began to discuss replacing Tilton with the country’s best-known landscape architect, the “brilliant, unorthodox, opinionated, highly controversial, Frederick Law Olmsted.”  Olmstead liked “gracefully-curved lines, generous spaces and the absence of sharp corners, the idea being to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility.”

Whether Wright and the board were concerned with prompting happy tranquility at their terminus is doubtful. Probably what attracted them were Olmsted’s capacity for attracting attention, and his reputation for finding novel solutions to difficult problems of terrain. The members commissioned him to make a preliminary study for the town site.

Rather than visit Tacoma, Olmstead worked from contour maps and sketches.  His vision was a town that would blend with sea, forest, and mountain. Sketches show his concept of a latticework of diagonals to climb the hill back from the bay.

The plan was delivered to the Northern Pacific on schedule in early December and reached Tacoma the week before Christmas, where it was put on display in the Tacoma Land Office, a small wooden building built over a skunk cabbage marsh. Residents considered Olmsted’s vision with a considerable lack of enthusiasm.

Thomas Prosch, editor of the “Pacific Tribune”, wrote that he found the plan “unlike that of any other city in the world,” and “so novel in character that those who have seen it hardly know whether or not to admire it, while they are far from prepared to condemn it.”

The most peculiar features were the varying sizes and shapes of the blocks, and the absence of straight lines and right angles. Every block and every street and avenue were curved. The lots had a uniform frontage of 25 feet, but differed in length, averaging, however, 180 feet. The curvature of the blocks did away with corner lots, and their great length with much of the misery of street crossings, where collisions and accidents most frequently happen, and where problems with mud and dust were the worst.

There three major avenues:  Pacific, intended for the business of the town, and for country trade and traffic, Tacoma for access to the parks, and Cliff (Stadium Way) for residences. Pacific led up the banks, from the railroad dock, and continued out into the country; Tacoma Avenue was only about a mile long, and it intersected up in town with Pacific Avenue and ran down to the beach between old and new Tacoma; Cliff Avenue extended along the brow of the bluff, two miles or more in length.

Prosch felt that time alone would prove the plan’s viability.  However, speculators, who wanted to buy corner lots, saw no merit in a downtown deliberately left deficient in four-way intersections. Olmsted’s dream of a business district without bottlenecks was a nightmare to them. Nor were the engineering crews assigned to run lines amid the downtown stumpage to create Pacific, Cliff, and Tacoma Avenues persuaded by Olmsted’s dictum that “speed of traffic is of less importance than comfort and convenience of movement.”

In prosperous times the Olmsted plan might have survived, but the Northern Pacific board lacked the confidence to wait out the discontent.  After Jay Cooke’s bank failed, the panic began deepening into depression, and the railroad was desperate for capital.
Olmsted was notified that his ideas would not be used and his services were no longer required.