Notes from the Archives: Grants Department Store

By Emily Gendrolis, MHS Volunteer

A new collection (Coll. 2725) is a trip down memory lane for anyone who remembers the old W. T. Grant Department Store in Portland, located on Congress Street, or for anyone who remembers department stores in any downtown location.

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W.T. Grant Department Store, Congress Street, Portland

W.T. Grant Department Store, commonly known as Grants, was founded by William T. Grant as a 25-cent store. Grant opened the first in Massachusetts in 1906, and by his death in 1972 his department store chain had multiplied to 1200 stores in forty-one states. In 1936, Grants annual sales had reached nearly $100 million; that year also saw the founding of William T. Grant’s humanitarian project, the W.T. Grant Foundation, which is still in operation today, funding research whose aim is to improve the lives of young people throughout the United States.

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William T. Grant

The Grants stores were divided into a diverse array of departments, including women’s apparel, toys, books, furniture, records and electronics, and gardening and lawn care supplies, much like modern department stores today such as Sears and Macy’s. In addition, Grants was also equipped with lunch counters, where customers could enjoy snacks – like a frankfurter for fifteen cents – and beverages – just ten cents for a whippy, “the drink you can eat” – while taking a break from their shopping.

There were twenty-eight Grants stores in Maine, but this collection focuses on the department store located on Congress Street in Portland. Over two hundred photos of this location show off the numerous departments and selection of items offered by Grants. Other photographs show satisfied customers dressed for a day of shopping – men in fedoras and women in fur-trimmed coats; children being given popcorn by an employee in a clown costume; and two cheerful employees modeling wedding dresses for a captivated crowd of customers.

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Modeling Wedding Gowns at W.T. Grants

The department store chain went bankrupt in 1976. In a prophetic memorandum – included in this collection – a directive sent out to the New England region store managers in December of 1974 warns that the “Grant Company is in very serious financial trouble” and that “overspending…can break us.” Sadly, this call to desist from overspending was not enough to save the company. The magic of Grants department store can still be felt in the photographs housed in this collection.

For more information see Coll. 2725 in the Minerva catalog.

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Interior of W.T. Grant Department Store
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Grant’s Civil War Centennial Window Display

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3 thoughts on “Notes from the Archives: Grants Department Store

  1. Barbara Jackson

    My sister worked at the Oakland CA store as the office manager in the 1950s. The store manager was Mr Beard. I was hired while attending high school as a sales clerk in the cosmetic department and in the record department. I fell in love with the window trimmer. Oh, happy and innocent days.

  2. Reblogged this on Emily in the Archive and commented:
    A few words on the W.T. Grant Department Store collection, comprised of over 200 photographs, housed in the archive of Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library. It was a pleasure to process this collection and create a finding aid to enable future use by researchers. Staff of the W.T. Grant Foundation later read this blog post and purchased rights to the portrait of W.T. Grant used in the post from MHS.

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