Nordstrom Department Store

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 9/18/1999
  • Essay 1677
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John Nordstrom (1871-1963) was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in America with $5 in his pocket. He worked his way across the country, ended up in Alaska, and staked a claim in the gold fields. The claim was disputed, and he knew he was in trouble so felt quite delighted when he was offered $30,000 for it. He came to Seattle and went into the shoe business with his friend Carl Wallin. Wallin and Nordstrom opened in downtown Seattle in 1901, and was the beginning of Nordstrom, the downtown department store. Nordstrom gradually expanded and opened stores in several states. By 1985, Nordstrom surpassed the sales of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York to become the largest specialty store chain in the country.

Early Life

When 16 year-old John W. Nordstrom stepped off the boat in New York in the 1880s, he had only $5 in his pocket. It was the last of a small inheritance from his father. He had one suit. He had come from the cold farmlands of northern Sweden, and didn't speak a word of English. He made his way West by loading freight, toting brick, and logging. Then one morning in 1897, he picked up a newspaper and read about the discovery of gold in Alaska. The next day, he booked passage for Skagway, to seek his fortune in the Klondike gold fields. He invested in a claim on Gold Run, but his right to the claim was challenged and a lawsuit was filed. Knowing perfectly well he was in trouble, Nordstrom was delighted when another party offered him $30,000 for the claim. He sold it, split the money with his two partners, and returned with his share ($13,000) to the warmer climate of Seattle.

The Shoe Business

Nordstrom bought a few parcels of property in downtown Seattle and began looking for a business in which to invest the remaining money. A friend he had met in Alaska, Carl Wallin, offered him a partnership in a Seattle shoe repair shop. In 1901, the two opened Wallin & Nordstrom in a 20-foot frontage at 4th Avenue and Pike Street.

Meanwhile, in May 1900, Nordstrom married Hilda Carlson, also a Swedish immigrant, and began raising a family. He and Hilda eventually had three sons: Everett, Elmer, and Lloyd.

Business at Wallin & Nordstrom was slow in the early years, but gradually improved. In 1923, the partners opened a second store, in Seattle’s University District. All three of Nordstrom¹s sons eventually managed the store, in turn, as they graduated from the University of Washington School of Business. In 1928, when Everett Nordstrom was 26 and Elmer was 24, their father sold them his share of the business and retired. Carl Wallin sold out to them the following year. When their younger brother Lloyd finished college in 1933, he joined them. The brothers managed to keep both stores open despite the challenges of the Great Depression. In 1937, they moved the downtown store to a better location, on 5th Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, very near the present site of Nordstrom's flagship store.

Adding Clothes to Shoes

By 1960, the company was operating eight shoe stores in Washington and Oregon. Its downtown Seattle store was the largest shoe store in the country. The company then began to expand beyond shoes. In 1963, the Nordstrom brothers bought Best Apparel, a Seattle-based women’s clothing store. Three years later, they purchased a fashion retail store in Portland, Oregon, and merged it with their existing Portland shoe store. Men’s clothing and children’s wear were added to the retail mix. For the first time, customers were greeted with a selection of both shoes and clothing for the entire family, under a new store name: Nordstrom Best.

In 1968, the three brothers retired and handed the company over to the third Nordstrom generation. The company was now led by Everett’s son, Bruce (1933-2024); Elmer’s sons, James and John; Lloyd's son-in-law, Jack McMillan, and family friend Bob Bender.

Shares of the company’s stock were offered to the public for the first time on July 29, 1971. After adjusting for subsequent stock splits, the initial price per share was approximately 50 cents. The stock has appreciated by more than 700 percent since then (based on a per share price of about $38.50 as of September 2004). Nordstrom sales passed the $100 million mark in 1973, and the company was recognized as the largest-volume fashion specialty store on the West Coast. That same year, the company’s name was formally changed to Nordstrom, Inc.

By 1975, the company had expanded into Alaska, and the first Nordstrom Rack was opened in Seattle as a clearance center for merchandise from the full-line stores. Three years later, Nordstrom moved into the competitive California market. By 1985, it had surpassed the sales of Saks Fifth Avenue to become the largest specialty store chain in the country -- and it had yet to venture into the East Coast markets. Nordstrom did not open its first store on the East Coast until 1988.

In the early 1990s, the Nordstrom flagship store in downtown Seattle began to seem too crowded. When the nearby Frederick & Nelson department store went out of business, Nordstrom began to consider moving its flagship store into the larger building vacated by Frederick & Nelson on the corner of 5th Avenue and Pine Street. However, the company insisted it would not renovate and move into the building as long as Pine Street remained closed to vehicular traffic between 4th and 5th avenues as a part of Westlake Park. A possible alternative was to move the flagship store across Lake Washington to Bellevue, which would have been a blow to downtown Seattle's retail core. In March 1995, after a contentious campaign pitting downtown advocates against neighborhood activists, voters approved the reopening of Pine Street. A new downtown Nordstrom’s opened in the old Frederick & Nelson building in 1998.

Nordstrom, Inc. is now [2004] one of the nation's leading fashion retailers, with 149 stores in 27 states as of 2004. Among these are 93 full-line stores, 49 Nordstrom Racks, five Faconnable boutiques, one free-standing shoe store, and one clearance store. The company also operates 31 international Faconnable boutiques, primarily in Europe. Additionally, Nordstrom serves customers through its website ( and through its direct mail catalogs.


"A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound Hall of Fame Series; Robert Marshall Wells, "The Players Get Richer and the Stakes Get Higher in Downtown Seattle," The Seattle Times, September 12, 1999; "About Nordstrom," Nordstrom Website accessed on September 9, 2004 ( companyhist/companyhist.asp).
Note: This essay was updated on September 13, 2004.

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