On Sept. 6, 1918, a young immigrant from Russia with little formal education opened a clothing store in downtown Harrisburg that would become legendary for its elegance and high fashion.
Mary Sachs dominated the entrepreneurial world of the capital city for decades—until her death in 1960—eventually earning the moniker, “Merchant Princess.”
At first, Sachs sold only upscale women’s clothing, but, eventually, she expanded the store to include several departments. Satellite stores in Lancaster and Reading followed.
Sachs was nothing if not resourceful and determined. After a fire destroyed her original store in 1931, she constructed a new, expanded one, in 1932.
In time, she also became known for her charitable work, earning the additional title of “Princess of Philanthropy.” Eleanor Roosevelt, the country’s first lady and a good friend, declared, “Few can ever match her generosity.”
Historic Harrisburg Association, along with the Mary Sachs Charitable Trust, is now honoring this centennial and her legacy with a celebration that will launch 100 years to the day that Sachs opened her Harrisburg store.
The celebration will highlight three cornerstones of Sachs’s importance to the capital city, said David Morrison, HHA’s executive director.
“One is her introduction of world-class fashion retailing and an international following,” he said. “Second, her elegant shop on N. 3rd Street opposite Capitol Park helped establish downtown Harrisburg as a thriving center of commerce and culture. Then there was her charitable work, helping the needy and inspiring those who were well off.”
The remembrance actually begins on Sept. 5 with “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage and the Legacy of Mary Sachs,” a “Smart Talk” segment with host Scott LaMar that will air at 9 a.m. on WITF.
Then, at noon on Sept. 6, a “Centennial Ceremony” and live TV newscast will take place in Capital Park, near the former Mary Sachs store at 208 N. 3rd St., a Lawrie & Green landmark building that still stands and bears her name.
That same day, a new exhibit, “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage,” will open at the HHA Resource Center in Midtown, with an opening reception that begins at 5:30 p.m. Local historian Jeb Stuart, whose father was a business associate of Sachs, is curating the exhibit.
The 35-panel exhibit will cover the retail legacy not only of Sachs and Stuart but of such famed entrepreneurs as the Goldsmiths, Troups and others. It will include photos of downtown landmarks, pictures of other important buildings, newspaper clips and some of the ads for which Sachs was famous.
“The exhibit will focus on the capital city’s historic architecture, buildings and places,” said Stuart. “Imagery drives it.”
One special aspect will be the half-dozen Mary Sachs dresses owned by Alyce Spector, a community leader, from the days of her trousseau. Alyce’s husband, Morton, has been a long-time advisor to the Mary Sachs Charitable Trust.
In addition, the exhibit will be one of 30 stops along Gallery Walk, sponsored by the Art Association of Harrisburg, on Sunday, Sept. 9.
Future programming includes a walking tour of the “Retail Landmarks of Downtown Harrisburg” and a panel discussion on “Harrisburg Retail Royalty” at HHA.
Sachs’s star still hasn’t faded.
Both the State Archives and the Dauphin County Historical Society have collections of material by and about her. And, if you search online for “Mary Sachs Vintage Clothing,” you’ll find some of the items from her stores.
Then there’s the continuing work of the Mary Sachs Charitable Trust, which she founded. These many years later, the trust is still doing great things, such as offering college scholarships for local students.
“We are proud of the Mary Sachs story from a business as well as a philanthropic perspective and strive to continue her legacy through significant scholarship aid to young women in the tri-county area (Dauphin, Perry, Cumberland) who are going to college with a major in either fashion design, retailing or general business,” said Paul Hoch, a great-nephew of Mary Sachs and chair of the Mary Sachs Trust.
Sachs’s 42-year reign as Harrisburg’s “Merchant Princess” coincided with the city’s golden age, shaped in part by a thriving climate of locally owned downtown retail establishments and other independent urban businesses, Morrison said.
He added that, after many decades in decline, Harrisburg retail is experiencing a revival. He cited the numerous small businesses that have opened in recent years, including Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Provisions grocery store and numerous new shops along N. 3rd Street.
“It’s an age that hasn’t completely passed,” he said.
The Historic Harrisburg Association Resource Center is located at 1230 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For information about the Mary Sachs centennial and “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage,” visit www.historicharrisburg.com, call 717-233-4646 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Sachs opened her first store on Sept. 6, 1918. The centennial will be celebrated with a series of events.
- Sept. 5, 9 a.m.: “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage and the Legacy of Mary Sachs,” a “Smart Talk” segment with host Scott LaMar on WITF. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
- Sept. 6, noon: “Centennial Ceremony” in Capitol Park across from Mary Sachs building, 208 N. 3rd St. Living relatives of Mary Sachs and other dignitaries will commemorate the opening of her famous store.
- Sept. 6, 5 to 7:30 p.m.: Opening reception for new exhibit, “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage and the Legacy of Mary Sachs,” Historic Harrisburg Resource Center, 1230 N. 3rd St.
- Sept. 9: Harrisburg Gallery Walk, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.: “Harrisburg’s Merchant Heritage and the Legacy of Mary Sachs” exhibit is featured at Historic Harrisburg Resource Center, 1230 N. 3rd St.
- Sept. 22: Walking Tour: “Retail Landmarks of Downtown Harrisburg,” a new narrated tour led by Jeb Stuart and David Morrison. Meet at Capitol East Wing fountain. Fee, payable on arrival, is $15, $10 for HHA members, $5 for students.
- Oct. 23: Historic Harrisburg Monthly Education Program, “Harrisburg’s Retail Royalty.” This panel discussion features members of prominent local merchant families from decades past, plus current, 21st-century entrepreneurs. Open to the public free of charge at 6 p.m. Historic Harrisburg Resource Center, 1230 N. 3rd St.