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Who Remembers…Star Store?

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Here is another installment in our Who Remembers? series. You can browse previous articles by using the search bar on the right. These articles are strolls down memory lane. In some cases the buildings, but new businesses have replaced them. In other instances, the buildings or even the properties have been razed. Instead of a building, it may be a TV show, personality, or commercial that no one longer exists. Either way, it can’t stop us from taking the Memory Lane stroll!

As always we would rather this be a discussion. No one knows this area better than those who grew up here! Please, leave constructive criticism, feedback, and corrections. We’d love to hear your anecdotes. Please share!

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Fourth Street; Thomas Knowles & Company
Once upon a time, before Purchase Street was named so, it was called 4th Street. It was primarily residential, had a rather large park with gardens and was lined with elm trees. As more and more revenue from Whaling entered the city, business “sprawl” spread north. The first three streets were primarily service streets – businesses that served whaling, i.e. coopers, carpenters, wrights, smithies, customs, the Seamen’s Bethel, Mariner’s home, brothels, etc. The first available street for residents to go shopping or be entertained at was Fourth Street and Purchase Street – East of Union Street- was born circa 1834.

One of the very first dry goods stores on Purchase Street to open was artist William Bradford’s at 16 Purchase Street in 1845. Another merchant, who saw the great potential of Purchase Street was one Thomas Knowles (1803-1877). He and his brother, John Pepper formed a partnership in 1835, T.& J.P. Knowles producing clothing.

New Bedford Dry Goods’ Star Store circa 1916 (Spinner Publications)

Their cousin Joseph Knowles entered the picture and they opened a store on the Northwest Corner of Union and Purchase Street called Thomas Knowles & Company in 1844 – likely the very first establishment to sell dry goods on the street. In addition to dry goods, they sold groceries, provisions and were also agents for over a dozen whaling vessels.

The buildings of note by the 1860s were Liberty Hall, the granite North Congregational Church, the Cummings Building and the Wing’s Building – which was the precursor to Wing’s Department Store and Wing’s Court. More and more businesses popped up on Purchase Street and it became the premier shopping destination.

New Bedford Dry Goods Company
Back to Thomas Knowles & Company – they operated their store with their sons until 1894. Here there is a lacuna in the timeline of the building’s history. When it appears next, it’s New Bedford Dry Goods headed by president Asa A. Mills, which opened to wholesalers on October 8, 1898 with a sales force of 20 people. This store claims to be the site of the very first escalator in the country – in spite of the fact that the Guinness Book of World Records lists Coney Island as having the first.

The one-story building and its basement consisted of a modest 15,000 sq. ft., but its popularity by 1915 meant a ten-fold expansion: they increased their workforce to 300 and took over adjacent buildings to the tune of 150,000 sq. ft. By 1918 it opened to the public, needed an elevator because it expanded upward, and even added a roof garden. New Bedford Dry Goods aka the Star Store became the shopping destination.

Slew of Factoids – Credit plates, carillons, pneumatic tubes
Coincidentally, a lady named Mary Dorothy Cox was selling candies out of the New Bedford Dry Goods Store in 1925.

Union Street from Acushnet Avenue. Left to right: Dewolf – 2nd Geo. Lobdell Hall second floor, Sheedy’s Vaudville – F.W. Francis, Pool Room – Caleb Maxfield furniture, store – Knowles Dry Goods (upstairs), Pierian Hall (Whaling Museum)

It had a deli, clothing department, jewelry, cosmetics, pet center, and more. In 1952, Star Store jumped on the bandwagon of “merchant cards”, the precursor to credit cards with a metal card called a “credit plate.” Sometime in the 1960s they built a carillon, which was an automatic music “machine” that consisted of bells that were struck electronically. Star Store’s carillon was a favorite around Christmas time when it belted out Carols and popular Christmas tunes.

A “first” claim for Star Store was that it was the first store in the country to utilize pneumatic tubes which used small containers to send bills and receipts. While it was surely used for practical reasons, it had a real promotional value in drawing in local children.

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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7 comments

  1. Christine Frederic

    Many memories from when I was a child, shoe shopping and back to school shopping.

  2. My memories of Star Store … Getting my feet ex rayed in the shoe dept. In one of those machines that you would stick your feet into. …..watching the tube with the receipt fly through the tube up to the office…..going up the escalator was such a treat..the little metal Star Store charge plates my mom had to charge her purchases. She would the. Pay $5 a week on her credit at the office.

  3. I worked at the Star Store in the early 70’s and met the woman who became my wife there in 1972. I started as a stock boy on the fourth floor in the toy and furniture department and worked my way up to associate in the Men’s Department on the first floor, then in the Men’s Clothing Annex which had it’s own entrance on Union Street across from Keystone’s. Dick Reilly was the store manager – great guy. They eventually promoted me to Assistant Store Manager and assigned me to their affiliated store, Edgar’s, at the Swansea Mall. The Star Store owned a lot of the properties on that block. I remember wandering through haphazard passageways to get to their pricing facilities in their building on the corner of Pleasant and Spring Streets, and their shoe repair shop which was actually located under Union Street. They also had a tailor shop above the annex I worked in. At Christmas they hired a guy to play Santa who’d sit in the toy department. On his breaks, he’d go into one of the stock rooms and drink whiskey from a flask he brought with him! And, yes, the carillon was still used to play Christmas songs when I worked there!

  4. I worked at Star Store in the late 60s during the Christmas season while attending what later became UMass Dartmouth. I have been told, don’t know whether or not it is true, that their escalator was the first in the country. They used the suction tubes to send the money up to the office where a receipt was prepared and, along with any change due, was sent back to the sales clerk. I worked in stockrooms, put together toys, wrapped Christmas gifts and helped stock shelves. It was a fun place to work during the holidays as there were some very interesting people to hang out with during breaks. 🙂

  5. I have no memories of the Star Store, but I do have a story. My Grandmother (who died in 1969) used to sew a lot and in fact she and my Grandfather had a textile business in the Fall River/Assonet area for some years. My Grandmother used to make some of my clothing when I was a child. I was teenager when she died in 1969, and in her will she left me her sewing machine and all her sewing supplies. I still have a lot of them (and the old Singer flyweight sewing machine), and this is where the Star Store comes in. I was sewing something for my Granddaughter the other day and needed some bias tape. I looked through my sewing supplies and found a brand new package of bias tape with a price sticker on it saying The Star Store, New Bedford, Massachusetts. The price of the package was 10 cents. I had never heard of the Star Store, so I of course googled it and found this article. Very interesting to read about the store and see how long it was in business. It is pretty cool to know that something purchased by my Grandmother is now in use for my Granddaughter! Five generations! And that bias tape traveled from Massachusetts to Delaware, then to North Carolina where I live now, and I just sent it back north to Virginia where my Granddaughter lives. Well traveled package of bias tape.

  6. When I was a kid I would walk with my friend from my house which was near where the high school is now to star store. Correct me if I’m wrong…I believe it was there where I would go to the music department and they would have booths where you could play records to see if you wanted to buy them. We used to do it all the time

  7. Veronica Diane Roy

    What is there now?

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