In the 1930s, a South Orange or Maplewood shopper may have bought food in town and notions in Newark. For browsing or for special occasion shopping, however, the "Fifth Avenue of the Suburbs" was an attractive, local option.
While the Depression hit most of the country, our communities didn't feel the impact as much or as quickly. The New York Times notes that the Oranges, Maplewood and Montclair were still economically attractive, so much so that Best & Company, a Fifth Avenue retailer of women's and children's clothing, moved locally when they looked to the suburbs. Best & Co. made its first suburban foray into East Orange, then "a small city heavily populated by New York businessmen and other commuters," according to the New York Times. They hired the same architects who had built the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan to craft a three-story building topped by a solarium.
The store's success was such that other retailers quickly followed Best & Co. to downtown East Orange. B. Altman opened on Central Avenue a year later. Soon thereafter, McCutcheon's sold linens, I. Miller and J. & J. Slater offered shoes, and Black, Starr & Gorham peddled jewels, silver and engraved stationery. Peck & Peck was another clothing retailer, and Bachrach's offered fine portaits.
The store owners, managers and administrators followed and settled in the Oranges. Barry Loane Herman, for example, Vice President and Controller of B. Altman, lived at 148 Glenwood Ave., East Orange. Schools that educated the children of some of those merchants included Carteret Academy, Miss Beard's School, now Morristown-Beard, and the Dearborn Morgan School.
In making Central Avenue the "Fifth Avenue of the Suburbs," as it was then known, these retailers were blazing a trail west from Manhattan, but also replacing other stores that had catered to the same clientele a generation earlier.
The 1908 Blue Book for the Oranges, New Jersey is filled with ads for goods and services provided at the same East Orangen addresses that Manhattan-based retailers later claimed. The Channell Studio for Photography at 30 Harrison St. was described as, ""Makers of the better kind of portrait photographs." "Everything good in Housefurnishings" was offered by L. M. Meeker & Co., located at 542 and 543 Main St. Just down the block, shoppers could purchase toys, books and engraved wedding invitations from Henry F. Schmidt. Wedgewood, Dresden, Minton sold next to "Habits, Driving Coats, Walking, Yachting, Golfing, Mountain, and Steamer Gowns," all on Main Street, just blocks -- or a trolley ride -- from South Orange.
Westward migration, the same impulse that brought retailers to New Jersey, continued. McCutcheon's moved to Millburn in 1952, and B. Altman left for Short Hills in 1957. Cars were common at that point; shoppers drove further for their goods and services. Likewise, some of the schools that served the merchants' children moved west.
While B. Altman and Best & Co. have closed their doors forever, what remains of the "Fifth Avenue of the Suburbs" is a busy retail stretch of city street. Newer construction contrasts with older, often taller buildings that looks backwards in time. East Orange's Central Avenue is bustling. It's no Fifth Avenue, it's true, but for goods and services, it's still convenient for shoppers of the Oranges.
A shorter version of this appeared in late 2009; thanks to J. Miller for the additional info.