Macy’s – A Cold Coming We Had of It

For Lucinda

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 12.04.39 AMFeel like you’ve spent too much time shopping lately?  Need something to help you through the torrid crowds at Lord and Taylor or Macy’s?  Here’s some food for thought if you should find yourself awash in a sea of over-zealous Macy’s shoppers.

In 1858, after two failed attempts at dry goods stores in Massachusetts,  Captain Rowland Hussey Macy opened a store in New York City on 6th Avenue.  Not at the current and iconic location on Herald Square, but between 13th and 14th streets. According to a New York Times article on the store’s 75th anniversary, Macy’s store was the first store in New York, and possibly America, where dry goods and home furnishings were sold under one roof.   Macy let space in his basement to L.Straus & Son for a display of crockery, china, and glassware.  (Plus, checkout the totally emotive almost full sentence italics of the NYT article describing this partnership at the end of the second paragraph as well as for an amazing vision of life in the city at the time.)

Previous to his career in retail, Macy had been a Nantucket whaling skipper.   He was known for his beard, and waiting on customers in shirtsleeves, while puffing on a cigar. It is from this past life as a sailor that the store’s  iconic red star logo came into being.  Macy had the sailor’s good luck charm, a nautical star, among the tattoos he had on the back of his hands.

Whaling was a thriving industry in the 1900s, with whale oil lighting most lamps and whale bones, providing among other things, the starch for a woman’s corset.  The smallest of ships – schooners – were out to sea for an average of 6 months, with the longest tour on record being 11 years.  Sailors explored the world in a way landlocked gentleman could not.  Their crews were often multiracial – Yankees, Gay Head and other Indians as well as African Americans. [1] Interestingly, occasionally even families sailed with the crews.  Western sailors started getting tattoos around the time Captain Cook sailed to the South Pacific.  There is no documented record of when sailors started to be superstitious, it might pre-date writing.   But a natural combination was born, permanent talismans to guard against elements that could not be truly foretold or controlled (the uncontrollable mystery).

Macy’s red nautical star had the same meaning as a rose of a compass – an image to guide the sailor home.  This refers to the North Star, as it traditionally guided navigation.

Some other nautical tattoo meanings:

  • Swallows – tattooed on the chest, neck or hands, one swallow meant 5,000 nautical miles sailed, two meant 10,000 (no small accomplishment.)  These birds are known to return to home after long migrations every year.
  • Hold Fast – hold written on one hand, and fast on the other, is meant to give a sailor good grip of the rigging, and figuratively keep them on board, as it may be derived from Hold Vast/Fast which in Nordic languages means hold tight.
  • Dragons – a voyage to China and back.
  • Roosters and Pigs – talismans to guard against drowning.  Pigs and roosters, animals which avoided water, were put in crates that floated.  Sailors got tattoos of these animals on their feet to protect against drowning (as interestingly, most sailors did not know how to swim in the 19th century[2]).
  • Anchor – crossing the Atlantic Ocean, American sailors added an eagle to the anchor.  It’s actually a  fouled anchor – an anchor with rope around it.
  • Full Rigged Ship – the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn.
  • Shellback Turtle – crossed the equator.
  • Dolphin  – a talisman to protect a sailor from shark attack, should they fall overboard
  • Harpoon – fishing industry
  • Crossed Cannons – naval  military service.

There’s a connection between the star, as a navigational beacon and gift giving that dates back to the story of Magi.   It doesn’t ease the pain of shopping, or the elbow jab from an eager gifter, but at least makes it somewhat more bearable.

For more on sailor tattoos, check out the Atlantic’s piece with Bowsprite on sailor tattoos.