Mary Ann Magnin – the Woman Behind the Man

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MaryAnnMagnin.jpgRecently, I was lucky enough to acquire a beautiful and rare vintage Norman Norell for I.Magnin coat. I’m still doing some research on it, so I will post pictures when I figure out what I will do with the coat-sell it at or an auction house specializing in vintage clothing and textiles.
As I was doing research, I came across this fascinating and amusing article about Mary Ann Magnin, Mr. Isaac Magnin’s wife, in a 1936 issue of Time magazine. Isn’t the “internets” grand?
What’s even more interesting, from a business perspective, is that the retail store was only in the red twice as of the publication of this article-once during the San Francisco fire and the other during the San Francisco earthquake.
And with stores online going under, even with such low overhead, maybe retail store owners need to look at the Magnin model to stay in the black. What was their secret? Possibly that I. Magnin had exclusives with designers. That’s right. Exclusive Hattie Carnegie and Norman Norells.
But back to the woman behind the man.

Late in the 1870’s, the Magnin’s set out for San Francisco. There Mrs. Magnin picked a shop between the business and residential districts to catch the trade both ways. Isaac Magnin carved and Mrs. Magnin sold notions. An energetic, dominating woman, handy with her needle, Mrs. Magnin began to make and sell fancy baby clothes, gradually branching into trousseaux. The shop followed the fashionable neighborhoods, and before long I. Magnin & Co. was a San Francisco institution. Eventually the business took on a corporate existence, though the public was not let In until 1919.

The most amusing anecdote in this article was how Mary Ann Magnin, with her enterprising ways, decided whom to leave the store operation to after Isaac’s death. She consulted a palmist.
While most of the spotlight shined on the name I. Magnin, the real credit belongs to Mrs. Mary Ann Magnin, who was business savvy enough to find a good store front and started an enterprise from notions and baby clothes.

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1 Bob Childs { 10.11.09 at 11:40 am }

I had worked for I Magnin & Co. for several years as a Christmas Extra, first in wrapping, then on the sales floor. This was back in the late 50s and early 60s and many of the older employees could remember Mrs, Magnin. They spoke fondly of her. She passed away in 1942, but as I understand, she was in control almost to the end.
I guess it is because the techniques of retailing have changed a lot since the days of Mary Ann Magnin, but almost none of the stores founded by San Francisco’s merchant princes exist today. What became of the Ransahoff’s the Liebes, the Livingstons, the Roos Brothers, the Emporium? Gumps, alone, remains

2 Sandra { 10.11.09 at 11:47 am }

Bob, thank you so much for your account of Mrs. Magnin. It’s always nice to hear personal stories. And thanks for giving me some names of department store owners. I have a set of hat displays with the monogram of “L” and could not figure out which dept. store they came from. I though Loehmann’s but now I have some more names to work with.
Thanks for reading!

3 Jeff { 11.26.10 at 8:44 pm }

Bob: I lived & worked in San Francisco in the 1960s – I think the actual store was called Roos Atkins.
I know that the Magnins had 8 children including 4 sons (John, Grover, Sam, and especially Joseph who started his own store). Do you know anything about Margot DeWildt’s connection to the Magnin family?

4 Stuff of Dreams | I. Magnin | FurInsider { 10.20.11 at 4:03 am }

[…] San Francisco-based department store (or is it a specialty store?), founded by Mary Ann Magnin in 1876, who coincidentally named it after her husband Isaac, served as taste arbiter for decades, first in […]

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