Nostalgia filled the air as Carolyn Cottrell, the supervisor of local history at the Portsmouth Public Library spoke at the final meeting of the American Association of University Women (AAUW)/Portsmouth before their summer recess. Those in attendance viewed photographs and heard stories about the once prominent clothiers that lined the streets of downtown Portsmouth. Members of AAUW who are natives of Portsmouth regaled in personal stories connected to some of the businesses and the pleasant memories associated with them.
Cottrell gave a brief history of the clothing merchants who were once an important part of Portsmouth’s downtown landscape. Cottrell researched the local history vertical files, the Portsmouth City directories, and the Portsmouth Daily Times to share photos and stories of the once thriving downtown area.
According to Cottrell, many of the first merchants in the clothing business were of German descent. Names like Haas, Heinisch, Marting, and Schwartz were the pioneer dry goods merchants of Portsmouth. Merchants that set up shop in one location oftentimes moved to several different locations during their existence. The United Woolen Company was one such business that opened its doors in 1911 and billed itself as the “Tailor to the Masses” before closing its doors in 1958.
Relocation was a common practice and perhaps based on leases, fires, floods, and marketing. The 1937 Flood is well known in the area; lesser known is the 1938 Fire that swept through downtown Portsmouth causing widespread damage to downtown businesses. A fire 15 years earlier caused the Lehman Brothers building an estimated $75,000 in damages as reported in the Portsmouth Daily Times.
Besides moving to several different locations, many of the early merchants changed their businesses from one enterprise to another. For example, Pepper’s Store began as a notions business, then a 25 cent store which was followed by a dry goods business. William Pepper left the retail business and then began a sign painting venture before ending his business career by purchasing a book store.
In other instances establishments began as grocery stores which were later transformed into men’s clothing stores and then household items or shoe stores. However, in one instance a prominent businessman who began his business as a men’s clothing store still exists as a clothing store to this day. Wolff Clothing, which moved from Pomeroy to Portsmouth in 1912, is still located on Chillicothe Street today. Phil Wolff, unlike many of his fellow merchants, only moved once after he opened his store in downtown Portsmouth. He started his business at 317 Chillicothe Street and then later built the building across the street at 320 Chillicothe Street which still bears his name. As your eyes search the roofline of that building today, you can see the Wolff name inscribed in stone. Cottrell explained that Wolff never retired. He continued to work a few hours each week until he died at the age of 92.
While Phil Wolff moved the location of his business only once; the Criterion probably holds the record for the most moves during its existence. The store had 10 different addresses during its 68 year history.
The first national chain store in Portsmouth was Woolworth which opened in 1912. The building had previously been the F.M. Kirby 5 and 10 Cent store. Other national chains that followed were H. L. Green, S.S. Kresge, J.C. Penny, W.T. Grant, Montgomery Ward, and Sears, Roebuck and Company. Montgomery Ward had the first escalator in downtown Portsmouth and you could buy a house and have it built through Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Department store chains are no longer found in downtown Portsmouth; however, two modern day national department store chains can be found in New Boston.
Cottrell explained that many more merchants were once part of the thriving downtown business district. The stores that were reviewed were only a small sampling of what shopping was like for the people of Scioto County when downtown Portsmouth was the heart of the city.