Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings

The W. G. Swartz Store

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I grew up making trips to the W. G. Swartz Department Store in downtown Norfolk with my parents and Grandmother Hitchings. It was a store that had quality and class and many families of the area shopped there. I remember meeting Santa Clause at W. G. Swartz when I was only 5 years old.

As a child I liked to walk on the yellow pine floors and see all the different displays. I remembered the columns, especially the bronze plaque, a tribute to Mr. W. G. Swartz. As a child I knew he must have been an important person. But most of all I liked to watch my parents and grandmother making purchases. Here is where the fun began.

One of the most interesting items in the store was the pneumatic tube cash system. I can recall how it worked. A person would give money for their purchases to the sales lady and she would wrap the receipt around the cash and placed them into a small cylinder in a pneumatic tube. She would press a button and the cylinder and money was sent zooming up to where the cashier was located.  I do not know how many tubes were in the building, but I loved to watch this cylinder disappear. This tube made a shunting eerie wind sound. It was fabulous to watch. Within a few minutes the cylinder was sent back to the sales lady with the right amount of change. Another store in Norfolk that had the same pneumatic cash system was D. P. Paul Jewelers on Granby Street.

In 1898 Miller, Rhoads & Swartz opened its first department store with exceptional, good quality merchandize, carrying kitchen gadgets to sport clothes, furniture to drapes and oriental rugs. It was the store to shop at. But in 1927 things changed. Mr. William Grant Swartz (1863-1935) acquired Miller & Rhoads' interest and the new store became the W. G. Swartz Department Store. The lion was its mascot. All the bags and boxes displayed this blue lion. W. G. Swartz Department Store employed 300 people. Eight years later on December 31, 1935, Mr. W. G. Swartz passed away after a long sickness. His 36-year career in Norfolk business and commerce had come to an end. He was the president and the treasurer until the time of his death. In 1936 Mrs. W. G. Swartz, nee Elizabeth Watts (1866-1963) became the President of the store. She would remain President until 1962 when she turned the store over to her great-nephew, John Arthur Watts.

Over the years Mrs. Swartz became her husband’s right hand in running the store. She was largely responsible for buying out the interest of Miller & Rhoads. Once President, she encouraged the different departments to have programs and gatherings. She also appointed her nephew John Arthur Watts, Jr., to become Vice President of the firm. He died in 1947.

Mrs. Elizabeth Watts Swartz had to overcome many financial challenges, especially during the 1930s recession. Sales went down in every department. She also dealt with many male staff employees and many men in the corporate level, an all-male dominated field. However, in the end she achieved her goals.  She ran the store with an iron hand and I wonder if she ever got any praise for her achievementss.  As president she pushed to make Swartz Department Store one of the best department stores in Norfolk. Her department store shone for many decades under her leadership. But the newspaper never seemed to run any articles on this woman president. As a neighbor once said to me many years ago, “She could be hard as nails in a work force dominated by men.. She was a person you would not like to reckon with. She had a mental toughness at the Board meetings when she had to be firm.” Every day she would makes her rounds throughout the store, chatting with all staff members and wanting to know everything that was going on in her store.

When old age crept up, her nephew John Watts would enlighten her of the store affairs and many of these issues relating to the store were conducted in her home due to her age. At the age of 95 in 1962, she turned over the reins of her store to her great-nephew, John Arthur Watts, III. Mrs. W. G. Swartz passed away in the comfort of her Edgewater home on October 31, 1963, at the age of 97.

There are many success stories of female leaders rising to the corporate level, like running a department stores. Somehow Mrs. W. G. Swartz's life story has never been told. I am sure it would be an interesting story. Mrs. Swartz overcame great odds as serving as President of this department store. Today she would been a beacon of light for many other women to follow. Mrs. Swartz had no idea of the abilities within her until tragedy struck at the death of her husband. Many women have that special spark of greatness within them and I believe Mrs. Swartz had this. She was ahead of her time and her life should be an inspiration to women who seek careers in the business world.

William Shakespeare stated,
“Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

After her death in 1963, her grand-nephew became the President of the W. G. Swartz and Company. Norfolk was undergoing redevelopment in downtown and the city needed this land. Old W. G. Swartz building was sold to the city of Norfolk for an undisclosed amount and was dismantled the following year.

However, within a few months a new modern store W. G. Swartz emerged and opened at Southern Shopping center on November 7th 1963, a few days after Mrs. W. G. Swartz had passed away. The new building was a super addition to Southern Shopping Center. However, on July 5th 1965, the Board of W. G. Swartz with Mr. James Arthur Watts, III, as President, decided to sell the store back to Miller & Rhoads of Richmond, Virginia, thus ending the old company of W. G. Swartz. 

For almost 40 years the W. G. Swartz Department Store offered a wide range of consumer goods on different floors, from yard goods, furniture, books, jewelry, men’s clothing, women’s clothing, children’s clothing. In the 1930’s, small movies were shown for small children. And many old timers remember the fine tea room with its fine china and most of all their delicious lunches. W. G. Swartz Department Store is long gone, but a few like myself remember this old store with its fine merchandise.

W. G. Swartz Department Store like many in Norfolk is a thing of the past now. Gone are the large departments stores that dominated downtown Norfolk. Today many people have never heard of this store and it's just a memory to us old-timers.

Today as you drive through the front gate of Forest Lawn cemetery, going straight, you will notice the grand white marble mausoleum with two carved lions resting in front. It’s the W. G. Swartz mausoleum where the Swartz and the Watts families now rest.  

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com

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