Founded by Gerson Fox in 1848, G. Fox & Co. went on to become the nation’s largest privately owned department store. It operated in downtown Hartford for almost 150 years—capitalizing on the exploding popularity of department stores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The company remained under the control of the Fox family throughout much of its existence, making the Foxes and their store a staple of life in Hartford.
Fox Family Gets its Start in Fancy Goods
Gerson Fox was born in Germany in 1811. He came to the United States in the 1830s and worked as a peddler, selling household wares door-to-door. In 1847, Gerson and his brother, Isaac, started a “fancy goods” store on Main Street in Hartford called I. & G. Fox. Fancy goods consisted of such things as buttons, ribbon, silk, and thread—items the Fox brothers supplemented by selling gloves, parasols, and handkerchiefs. They soon developed a reputation for outstanding customer service, even starting a home delivery service by carrying goods to people’s homes using a series of wheelbarrows.
When Isaac moved to New York in 1848, Gerson took over ownership of the store and renamed it G. Fox & Co. He spent the next several decades expanding his product line, selling shoes, hats, cookware, and glassware. Fox spread these goods out around the store, categorizing them into different “departments” (as was the popular practice at the time)—making G. Fox & Co. a full-fledged department store.
When Gerson Fox died in 1880, his son, Moses, took over as president. Moses had left school at the age of 13 to work at G. Fox & Co. full-time and already had 17 years of experience with the company by the time he succeeded his father. It was a responsibility he maintained for the better part of six decades.
The same year of Gerson Fox’s passing, the business he founded in 2 rooms on Main Street moved up the road to a new 4-story building. It was an era of rapid expansion for department stores and G. Fox was no exception. By the turn of the century G. Fox was bigger than ever, having recently taken over such enterprises as the George O. Sawyer department store and the Brainerd Upholstery Store.
The year 1917 witnessed the Fox family lose their department store to a devastating fire. Moses’s daughter Beatrice, and her husband George Auerbach relocated from Salt Lake City (where the Auerbach’s ran a department store) to Hartford to help Moses rebuild. While awaiting construction of a new building, G. Fox & Co. opened several temporary stores throughout downtown Hartford to keep the business afloat.
In 1918, a new 11-story G. Fox building opened on Main Street. Designed by New York architect Cass Gilbert, the new building provided 500,000 square feet of business space, making it the largest in the city.
Beatrice Fox Modernizes the Family Business
Nine years later, following the death of her husband, Beatrice began assisting her father in managing the store. She became president of G. Fox & Co. upon Moses’s death in 1938.
Beatrice went to tremendous lengths to modernize the store. While many department stores succumbed to the financial pressures of the Great Depression, G. Fox spent money upgrading its facilities, adding such amenities as air conditioning and elevators that stopped on every floor. Beatrice focused on providing customers, particularly women, with the opportunity to turn shopping into a day-long social experience. The store included a post office, beauty salon, restaurants, and a tea room. In addition, G. Fox offered the assistance of personal shoppers and even provided interpreters for those more comfortable speaking other languages.
In the 1930s and 40s, while department stores began branching out into the suburbs, G. Fox remained focused on maintaining its downtown presence. It helped reach customers outside the city by operating the largest telephone ordering system in New England. It also tried to attract suburban customers into the city by expanding the store’s available parking. A five-million-dollar expansion in 1953 continued this trend, providing the store with its first parking garage. Six years later, the store doubled in size to one million square feet.
Iconic Storefront Now Serves Students Instead of Shoppers
The company’s continued growth and success caught the eye of numerous competitors looking to expand through acquisitions. In 1965, the May Department Stores Company (the third-largest department store company in the United States) purchased G. Fox & Company.
Four years later, and one year after the passing of Beatrice Fox, G. Fox & Co. opened its first branch store (in Waterbury, Connecticut). The decades that followed witnessed the company’s expansion into Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. By the time of G. Fox’s final branch store opening in 1991, the growth of suburban amenities (including retail stores) helped bring about the demise of downtown shopping in many large cities, including Hartford. The May Company closed the G. Fox store on Main Street in Hartford in 1993 and incorporated G. Fox’s branch stores into May’s larger Filene’s chain.
Though the 1990s brought an end to the G. Fox brand, the contributions the Fox family made to bettering the lives of Hartford-area residents continued on through the family’s extensive philanthropy both in the educational and Jewish communities. Today, the former G. Fox building is home to Hartford’s Capital Community College.