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Whatever happened to ... ZCMI?

First Published      Last Updated Nov 25 2016 11:26 pm


An ornate iron facade from the historic Utah department store, proclaimed the nation’s first, now decorates SLC’s downtown City Creek mall.

Editor's note • In this regular series, The Salt Lake Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

ZCMI loved to proclaim that it was America's first department store.

For 132 years, it enjoyed a reputation for quality. Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour and Seventeen magazines held fashion shows there, and made it their exclusive local outlet. Flashy window displays won international awards.

ZCMI developed innovations such as the Intermountain West's first elevators and escalators, its first big display of electric lights (two years after Thomas Edison introduced them), the region's first delivery fleet and even its first parking garage.




Patrons included rich and common folk.

Celebrity shoppers included actor Bob Hope, pianist Liberace and singer Dionne Warwick. Former British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher once enjoyed high tea in the downtown Salt Lake City store's Tiffin Room, amid its chandeliers, linen tablecloths and waitresses in uniform.

ZCMI — Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution — sprung from a pioneer-era conflict between Mormon and non-Mormon business interests. Mormons then were even threatened with excommunication if they did not support the store. (It was among the reasons that some founders of The Salt Lake Tribune lost their church membership.)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owned a majority of the store's stock, sold off ZCMI in 1999 — and for a time, stores operated under the Meier & Frank name, and later switched to Macy's.

The only place the ZCMI name remains is atop the ornate iron facade from the old flagship store that still decorates City Creek Center.

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LDS vs. gentiles • ZCMI started as a defense against "gentile" merchants, or non-Mormons, who early LDS Church President Brigham Young accused of price gouging. It also was designed to build LDS unity as completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 threatened to intensify outside influences.

Former LDS Church historian Leonard Arrington noted in the book "Great Basin Kingdom" that most merchandising in Utah "was in the hands of non-Mormons because of the stigma attached to 'profiteering Saints,' and because of the inability of Mormon traders to refuse credit to their 'brethren' and force the payment of debts."

In a September 1868 speech, Young suggested that Mormons should not "trade another cent" with a man "who does not pay his tithing and help gather the poor, and pray in his family."

The next month, the School of the Prophets — a group of local adult male LDS church leaders — voted that "those who dealt with outsiders should be cut off from the church," as a last resort.

In the October 1868 church General Conference, Young received a vote from members to seek to be self-sustaining with their local industry and stores.

Within weeks, church leaders formed ZCMI.

Young said it was "to bring goods here and sell them as low as they can possibly be sold and let the profits be divided with the people at large" by purchasing directly from manufacturers. It would especially promote Mormon industry and goods.

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