Rich’s Department Store began operations in 1867 as M.Rich & Co in Atlanta. Morris Rich, a Hungarian immigrant who settled in Atlanta, founded the company. He opened a small dry goods store that year that would grow into a retail empire over the course of his life. From its inception, Rich separated his business from that of other retailers. He employed a liberal credit policy, giving patrons more time than usual to pay their debts. He also insisted on customer satisfaction, giving Rich’s the long-lasting reputation of having some of the best customer service in the city4. As his operations grew in the late 1870s, he pioneered a one-price policy. The need for bargaining over price was eliminated. The business would become a family affair as his brothers Emanuel and Daniel Rich joined the company. In 1884 the company name reflected this change, becoming M. Rich & Bros. Rich saw continued growth as his company gained more recognition within Atlanta and made several relocations to expand the store. In 1907 the company relocated to 52-54-56 Whitehall Street, where they opened their largest department store yet.
Rich’s Atlanta 19471
M. Rich Building formerly, 52-54-56 Whitehall Street. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places5.
In 1924 Rich’s relocated to a new 180,000 square foot property6 at the corner of Alabama and Broad streets in Downtown Atlanta. This would become Rich’s flagship store and an iconic Atlanta landmark. The following year Morris Rich stepped down as president of the company he founded and led for 58 years. His nephew Walter Rich was appointed in his place7. In 1928 Morris Rich passed away at age 81 in Atlantic City, New Jersey after battling health problems8. The company was applauded for its generosity during the Great Depression in helping teachers cover their living expenses. In 1930 the City of Atlanta could not pay teachers’ salaries; instead, it paid them with scrip, a promissory note. Rich’s became one of the first major retailers to accept scrip as payment for goods at face value and even went even further by providing cash for scrip to any teacher. This move increased Rich’s popularity and the number of Atlanta businesses who accepted scrip.
Rich’s, which already was known for generous credit policies, invented a new and quicker way to shop in their stores using credit. In the late 1930’s Rich’s introduced Charga-plates. The new product was similar to store credit cards available today. Each plate had the customer’s name, address, and signature, which would then be presented at the checkout counter for easy billing9.
Carrying Case(left) and Rich’s Charga-plate(right)10
Rich’s expanded the downtown flagship store constructing the Store for Homes and Store for Men adjacent to the building. Rich’s began to expand past their Downtown Atlanta store. Their first expansion store, dubbed the “Store of Tomorrow,” located in Knoxville, Tennessee, opened in 1955. Following Rich’s would expand to Atlanta’s Lenox Square in 1959, which opened as an open-air shopping mall. It would be the first of many Rich’s stores at Atlanta area suburban malls. Rich’s would expand to ventures outside clothing. They operated the Richway chain of discount stores, Rich’s Bake Shops, Rich’s Cooking School, and Rich’s Academy.
Sit-Ins and Integration
In 1960 Rich’s became the focal point of the movement to desegregate the lunch counters at Atlanta’s department stores. The protests would prompt the involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King and then-presidential candidate John F Kennedy. Like other Atlanta retailers, Rich’s barred black patrons from eating in the store’s restaurants, including its renowned Magnolia Room. African American students from Atlanta’s HBCUs participated in sit-ins led by civil rights leader Lonnie King. This was a part of the Atlanta Student Movement. The first sit-ins that occurred by the movement began in March 1960 and continued throughout much of the year. In June, ordered black waitstaff to line up outside the Magnolia Room restaurant barring entry by protestors13. Lonnie King was arrested and sent to Atlanta police headquarters, where company owner Dick Rich was waiting to speak with him. “If you bring your black ass, here again, I’m going to lock you up and throw away the keys,” King paraphrased in a 2013 interview as he recalled the conversation14. King would return to Rich’s months later with more protesters and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in October 1960. Protesters fanned out across the store’s restaurants at pre-determined times on October 19th, 1960. Rich’s quietly arranged for the arrest of 51 protesters in total that day. For Dr. King, this would be his first arrest in his life. In a drafted letter to Judge James E. Webb, Dr. King wrote:
“I will coose jail rather than bail, even if means remaining in jail a year or even ten years. Mayby it will take this type of self suffering on the part of numerous Negroes to finally expose the moral defenses of our white brother who happen to be misguided and therby awaken the doazing conscience of our community15“
*Excerpt includes grammatical errors
Within days all of the protestors had been released from jail through a deal brokered by then Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield and Rich’s dropping charges against them, except one. Dr. King. King was being sought for prosecution in Dekalb County for violating the terms of his suspended sentence after driving without a license. He was transferred to the Dekalb jail on October 26th16. The next day presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called the governor of Georgia, advocating for his release. By the 27th, King was released. Rich’s would continue to enforce segregation until March of the following year when the company announced they would integrate their dining halls by the end of the year.
Aquisition and Flagship Closure
In 1976 Rich’s would be acquired by Federated Department Stores, which would forever change the brand. Federated owned multiple department stores across the United States under different names. In 1979 MARTA’s Five Points Station located directly across from Rich’s opened to the public. A tunnel underneath the street seamlessly connected shoppers between the transit station and Rich’s17. Over a decade later, in 1988, Federated was acquired by businessman Robert Campeau in a hostile takeover. Campeau personally visited Rich’s flagship to reassure employees that their jobs were not at risk. This would prove not to be true as soon after employee layoffs began18. Federated, under his control, also moved to shave off non-clothing elements of the business that were popular among customers. By 1990 Federated had filed for bankruptcy. The following year Rich’s iconic flagship store was put up for sale and closed that summer after 67 years in business.
Rich’s Implosion 199419
In 1994 Rich’s Store for Homes, connected to the former flagship store, was demolished to make way for the construction of the Sam Nunn Federal Building. The original Rich’s flagship building remains a part of the federal building. While its historic flagship location was shutdown, the Rich’s brand continued to thrive through the 1990s into the early 2000s.
One of Rich’s fiercest competitors, Macy’s, was acquired by Federated. In 2003 to create uniformity between their brands Rich’s stores were rebranded as Rich’s-Macy’s. Within two years, Rich’s name would be gone forever replaced by the Macy’s name alone. On March 6th, 2005 Rich’s would cease to exist 138 years after its inception.
Photo: Rich’s-Macy’s Northlake Mall20
Christmas at Rich’s
Two holiday traditions the Great Tree and Pink Pig, sponsored by Rich’s have become ingrained in the Atlanta Christmas experience.
Rich’s Great Tree
Beginning in 1948, The Rich’s Great Tree was perched atop the roof of the store’s Crystal Bridge over Forsyth Street. Each year a grand lighting ceremony would commence on Thanksgiving night, marking the beginning of the Christmas season in Atlanta. Choirs would be arranged on every bridge floor to sing Christmas songs each year. The event was first televised locally in 1958. In 1961 Rich’s Great Tree was featured on the cover of Time magazine. After the flagship store shut its doors in 1991, the tree was moved to Underground Atlanta and finally to Rich’s Lenox Square in 2000 where it has remained ever since21. Today the event is sponsored by Macy’s.
Photo: Rich’s Great Tree Lighting Thanksgiving 196922
Rich’s Great Tree Lighting 198923
Rich’s Pink Pig
Rich’s Pink Pig was a children’s monorail introduced to the store in 1953. It began operations inside the store’s children’s section, but it was relocated to its roof as it grew in popularity. Two “pigs,” Priscilla and Percival, entertained generations of Atlanta children as they soared high above the city’s streets each Christmas. With the closure of Rich’s flagship in 1991, the Pink Pig was temporarily retired from the store. In 2003 it returned to Rich’s-Macy’s Lenox Square on loan from the Atlanta History Center, where the pigs are now permanently housed. The Pink Pig would ride again for 16 years at Lenox Square until 2020 when it was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, Macy’s announced the retirement of the Pink Pig ending a decades-long tradition24.
Photo: Rich’s Pink Pig from Rich’s Rooftop- 198725
Atlanta Through The Ashes- Woodruff Park26
Rich Computer Center-Georgia Tech27
Rich Memorial Building-Emory University28
Rich’s continues to have a lasting impact on the Atlanta community through the Rich Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by the company in 1943. The foundation’s first project was a $250,000 donation to Emory Univerisity to build a new building for their business school29. The Rich Memorial Building was built to honor Rich family members and still stands to this day. Through an $88,000 investment from the Rich Foundation, the Rich Computer Building was built at Georgia Tech30. In 1948 the Rich Foundation gifted a radio station to the Atlanta and Fulton Public Schools31. The station, WABE, was created for educational purposes and is now an affiliate of National Public Radio. Atlanta Public Schools still holds the license to the station to this day. To celebrate the centenary of Rich’s, the foundation, with support from the City of Atlanta, commissioned a statue to mark the occasion. Atlanta Through the Ashes was unveiled in 1969 and was sculpted through the work of artists Gemba Quirino and Feruccia Vezzoni32. In 1995 the sculpture was relocated to its present location in Woodruff Park.
1 Unknown, Photograph (1947) in the Oscar Elsas Family Papers Rich’s, Inc. at corner of Broad and Alabama Streets, Atlanta, Georgia., 1947, photograph, William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum Collection, https://www.thebreman.org/CollectionSpace/detail/4ac95dd4-49be-4af1-864b
2 Unknown, M. Rich, Dry Goods, 1867, photograph, Atlanta History Center, http://album.atlantahistorycenter.com/cdm/ref/collection/athpc/id/34.
3 Unknown, MORRIS RICH, Unknown, photograph, Atlanta Constitution, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7872007/morris-rich
4 Jeff Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution. (Charleston: The History Press, 2012), 12
5 JJonahJackalope, M. Rich Building, 5 March 2020, photograph, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M._Rich_Building.jpg
6 Henry Givens Baker, Rich’s of Atlanta: The Story of a Store Since 1867 (Atlanta: Atlanta Division, University of Georgia, 1953), 169
7 Baker, Rich’s of Atlanta: The Story of a Store Since 1867, 175
8 “MORRIS RICH.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Jun 30, 1928, 8
9 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 70-73
10 William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, Metal charge card and case from Rich’s, a department store in Atlanta, Georgia., Unknown, photograph, William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum Collection, https://www.thebreman.org/CollectionSpace/detail/d3089c51-ef5c-4bbf-874b
11 Bill Young, Demonstrators protest against Rich’s department store segregated policies, 1960, 1960, photograph, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive, https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/ajc/id/11309/rec/1
13 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 125
14 Don Smith, Rich’s Remembered: Christmas Special (2019; Atlanta: Georgia Public Broadcasting), https://www.pbs.org/video/richs-remembered-christmas-special-qgyaan/
15 Martin Luther King Jr., “Draft, Statement to Judge James E. Webb after Arrest at Rich’s Department Store” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute Stanford. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-statement-judge-james-e-webb-after-arrest-richs-department-store
16 Strong, Jack. “King Gets 4 Months in DeKalb Court.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Oct 26, 1960. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/king-gets-4-months-dekalb-court/docview/1554911725/se-2?accountid=11226.
17 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 172
18 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 182-183
19 “RAW VIDEO: Rich’s Department Store implosion in 1994,” YouTube video, 2:06, posted by “WSB-TV,” November 15, 2017, https://youtu.be/ohjXy0gXu9I.
20 Unknown, Rich’s Northlake, Unknown Date, photograph, Sky City Retail History, http://skycity2.blogspot.com/2006/12/northlake-mall_28.html
21 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 97-98
22 Dwight Ross Jr, Lighting of Rich’s Christmas tree, Atlanta, Georgia, November 1969., 1969, photograph, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive, https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/ajc/id/1623/rec/36
23 “1989 Rich’s Tree lighting At the Downtown Flagship store,” YouTube video, 3:57, posted by “John Williams,” December 24 2014, https://youtu.be/5EBRvk5Yx64.
24 Melanie Watson, “Atlanta’s Pink Pigs Live in History.” Atlanta History Center. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/blog/atlantas-pink-pigs-live-in-history/
25 Unknown, Pink Pig monorail, Rich’s department store, Atlanta, Georgia, December 1987.,1987, photograph, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive, https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/ajc/id/938/rec/3
26 Ian Samuels, Atlanta Through The Ashes, 8 April 2022, photograph
27 Daderot, Rich Computer Center – Georgia Institute of Technology, 20 March 2014, photograph, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rich_Computer_Center_-Georgia_Institute_of_Technology-_DSC00799.JPG
28 Luyao Zou, Rich Memorial Building, Unknown, photograph, The Emory Wheel,https://emorywheel.com/media-studies-major-debuts/
29 Baker, Rich’s of Atlanta: The Story of a Store Since 1867, 242
30 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 83
31 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 82-83
32 Clemmons, Rich’s A Southern Institution, 146