Answer Man

August 23, 2014

Answer Man: Can you tell me about Romeiser's department store?

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

What can you tell me about an old department store in Belleville known as Romeiser's, which then became Carroll House at East Main and Jackson? -- M.E., of Belleville

Now here's something I don't expect to see in my journalistic lifetime: On Sept. 15, 1928, both the Belleville News-Democrat and Daily Advocate devoted a considerable chunk of their papers to trumpeting the 50th anniversary of The Romeiser Company.

Story after story gushed over the quality clothing the store had offered for a half century. Biographies of the firm's executives and employees were printed in detail as the papers lauded the business's outstanding service. Companies across the nation -- Manhattan Shirts and the Ames Suspender Co., for two -- bought large ads of congratulations.

But before you start thinking this was just a P.R. lovefest about your average department store, know this: Peter M. Romeiser dramatically changed the business of selling clothes here. And he had to survive the Civil War to do it.

As so many old Belleville stories do, this one starts in Germany, where Romeiser was born in 1842. When he was 15, he came to Waterloo, where he worked as a clerk through his late teens.

But before he could leave his mark on Belleville, he enlisted in the 22nd Infantry in 1861 and spent the next three years fighting at Belmont, Stone River, Chattanooga and Chickamauga, where he was wounded. Finally, in 1873, he arrived here, and on Sept. 20, 1878, Advocate readers found this small notice buried in a column of small local items: "(Peter) Romeiser's grand opening of the new St. Clair Clothing House (at 304 E. Main) took place yesterday ..."

It was a modest beginning. Romeiser's new store filled only a space 20 feet by 60 feet that previously had been used as a billiards room. Sales started slowly, totaling just $28,000 his first year, but within six years, profits tripled and a second story was added.

One reason for the store's popularity was a revolutionary pricing concept. Back in the 1800s, clothing stores often marked their goods with "mystical hieroglyphics" instead of a clear price, the News-Democrat reported. As a result, clerks based prices on what they thought a customer could pay. So just like buying a car or a house now, you wound up haggling for shirts and shoes back then.

From the start, Romeiser instituted a "One Price to Everybody" policy, and despite some customers walking out when clerks refused a lower offer, all Belleville stores eventually adopted it.

It wasn't the only time Romeiser made waves. Shopping on Sunday mornings was a popular custom even 150 years ago, but in July 1886 Romeiser announced he was closing his store to observe the Sabbath. In the previous three years, he had taken in $7,000 annually in such sales, but he was resolute -- and other stores again followed his lead.

And if you thought you'd be rewarded for buying a new suit there, well, fuggedaboutit.

"Another evil that was abolished was the 'treating' habit," the News-Democrat reported. "To take your customer after completing the sale to a neighboring saloon and buy drinks and cigars. This incurred great expense and was a costly waste of time."

"It Pays to Buy the Best -- It Pays to Buy at Romeiser's" became the store's slogan. Coupling that with Romeiser's belief in the power of advertising, the store soon experienced growing pains even after its expansion. In 1892, it was incorporated as The Romeiser Company, and in 1906, Romeiser moved to a building at Jackson and East Main, expanding his floor space to 20,000 square feet.

Romeiser himself died of heart disease in 1916, but the store continued for another quarter century. In fact, on the same day that it was celebrating its golden anniversary, the two newspapers announced that the Belleville Public Library was being given its first-ever endowment -- a $1,680 gift from Romeiser's estate.

But on May 22, 1935, readers may have been surprised to see that Romeiser's was scaling back. Half of its flagship building at Main and Jackson was going to be razed. A more modern building would be erected for Montgomery-Ward. Romeiser's would consolidate to a store at 208 E. Main

For the next 10 years, the site was in flux. Montgomery-Ward was already gone by 1939, and Romeiser's, that Belleville institution, disappeared by 1946. In their place, the Carroll House chain took over that new building in 1947 next to Fredman Brothers Furniture at 204-208.

It was the heyday of the Belleville downtown I remember with Small's, Fellner's, Penney's, Kresge's and a host of other family favorites. But on Sept. 14, 1973, Carroll House general manager James Wright said his store would close by year's end.

"Rising costs and the decline of downtown traffic due to the expansion of shopping centers ... have combined to make Carroll House an unprofitable operation," said Wright, who predicted a domino effect on other retailers that soon ensued.

It was the beginning of an end of an era.

Today's trivia

What was the only TV drama featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: American TV viewers were treated to their first soap opera in 1946, when the old DuMont Television Network ran "Faraway Hill" on Wednesday nights from Oct. 2 to Dec. 18. It followed the life of Karen St. John, a widow who becomes involved with a man her family had adopted. He, of course, was engaged to someone else. No footage survives.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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