From mourning clothes and rust-proof corsets, to sofas and perms, Esslemont & Macintosh was a one-stop-shop for 134 years.
Its name was a byword for quality and luxury in Aberdeen, but the department store’s fine facade gave no hint of its founders’ humble beginnings as farmer’s sons.
The shop was established in 1873 by two of Aberdeen’s most successful Victorians, Peter Esslemont and William Macintosh.
The two rival drapers both had stores on Broad Street, but made the bold move to merge their successful businesses.
The discerning duo had a lot in common: as well as being masters of the cloth trade, they both came from farming backgrounds.
The old saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman, and Peter Esslemont credited his mother Annie with his success.
Born in 1834, Peter grew up at Balnakettle, near Udny, where he ploughed the fields, but Annie knew he was destined for a life beyond the farm.
At a time when children were not routinely educated, Annie ensured Peter received an education at Belhelvie parish school, and he was apprenticed to an Aberdeen draper when he turned 16.
Meanwhile, William Macintosh was born at Aberdour in 1830 where his family farmed, before he served an apprenticeship at a drapers in Turriff. He worked as a draper in Elgin before taking his skills to Aberdeen.
Esslemont and Macintosh opened for business at 11-13 Broad Street on February 3 1873, stocking the finest silks, cashmere and cotton for tailoring and dressmaking.
With billowing, hooped gowns in jewel tones and three-piece suits the norm, there was great demand for quality fabrics and matching hats.
And for Aberdeen’s wealthiest residents, they also sold “black dress goods” suitable for servants, along with dainty aprons and the “most-becoming” caps for housemaids.
The mourning department
But black clothing was not only for servants, Victorians took death very seriously, and E&Ms were the proud purveyors of Aberdeen’s best and most fashionable ‘mourning department’.
Not only were they the exclusive supplier of Priestley’s finest fabrics, but the firm boasted a staff of “over 150 competent cutters, fitters, sewers and machinists” ready to run up mourning-wear for all the family.
In fact, E&Ms provided a helpful guide for the grieving so Aberdonians remained smart and appropriate in their sorrow.
Widows were advised “two years is the correct period for mourning” in a dress entirely covered in black crape for the first year. It was to be trimmed in crape for the next nine months, and a black dress without crape was acceptable for the final three months.
Elsewhere in the dressmaking department, the clothiers also provided a fabric cutting service and “patterns by post” for women who liked to sew at home.
Business boomed with the advent of the railways and from the 1880s, E&M salesmen travelled the length of the country with knickerbockers for men and cycling skirts for women.
Charity at heart of business
By the time the E&Ms was 10 years old, both men had firmly established themselves as pillars of the community in Aberdeen and beyond.
Neither had forgotten his modest roots and they dedicated much time to improving the lives of fellow citizens.
Peter served as Lord Provost of Aberdeen, he was a magistrate, he’d fought for improvements at Robert Gordon’s Hospital and from 1885-93 was a Liberal MP for East Aberdeenshire. He also served as a president of the chamber of commerce and chairman of the Fishery Board for Scotland.
Similarly altruistic, William served as both a county and parish councillor in Kincardine, he was also a member of the police board, and a director of the Royal Lunatic Asylum.
The philanthropic founders offered wholesale prices of goods for charities and institutions.
And a sense of charity is something that was carried down the generations, beyond the untimely death of Peter Esslemont in 1894.
Following his death, he was described as a tireless campaigner, an able politician, a shrewd businessman and one of the most influential people of the north-east.
Turn of the century
William carried the store into the new century, and with changing times came changing fashions.
The huge hoop skirts of the 19th century gave way to slimmer silhouettes, and E&Ms was the place to go for robust, rust-proof corsets.
The store also became appointed agents of luxury British fashion brand Burberry, which at the time specialised in outdoor clothing.
Burberry was ready to kit out the sportswomen of Aberdeen, with its “graceful topcoat” suitable for all manner of sporting pursuits including fishing, riding, hunting, walking and golf.
Exclusively available at E&Ms, adverts explained that pioneering garbardine coats were ideal for hunting in tropical rain – not that many Aberdonians were likely to be bothered by humidity in 1912.
William Macintosh died in 1913 and much like his late co-founder was remembered for being a “public-spirited citizen” as well as a successful merchant.
Having settled in Maryculter, he was credited with successfully campaigning for the erection of a bridge over the River Dee to improve safety.
But his obituary said greatest triumph was said to be “averting the calamity of the Broadford Works being closed” when the business got into difficulties.
William founded a syndicate of fellow businessmen to buy out the factory, saving hundreds of jobs.
The firm continued under the Esslemont family and retained its place in the hearts of its employees as well as the wider community.
There were excursions for staff, a concert choir that toured the north-east, and many employees clocked up decades of service.
From Broad Street to battlefront
When war broke out in 1914, E&M’s adjusted its stock accordingly advertising Red Cross kit bags for sending to soldiers on the front line.
At the cost of 17 shillings and sixpence, the kit contained soap, a cloth, a toothbrush, a comb, hankies, writing paper, envelopes, postcards, a pencil, a pipe and cigarettes.
As war progressed, the shop sold Burberry’s ‘Blighty Tweeds’ range which was woven by wounded servicemen, as well as the double-breasted coat which, adapted for military use, was renamed the trench coat.
Tapping into patriotism, Aberdonians could wear the same style of coats gallant officers wore when storming the enemy in far-away France. While newly-appointed officers were also encouraged to buy their kit from E&Ms.
The shop did its bit for the war effort too by employing discharged soldiers as porters, and the female staff choir performed for the wounded at Oldmill Military Hospital in Aberdeen, now Woodend Hospital.
Despite the turbulent times, there was still a demand for the latest clothing and hats, while the restrictive outfits of pre-war times had all but disappeared.
As women took on war work, the legacy of that continued into the 1920s – gone were the impractical high collars and trailing skirts.
E&Ms went through a change of its own, celebrating its golden anniversary in 1921 then moving to 32-38 Union Street in 1927 when the council widened Broad Street and demolished buildings.
In 1930 it was declared “the dark ages have gone” as an all-British fashion extravaganza was held at Aberdeen Music Hall to prove that Scotswomen were as fashionable as their continental counterparts.
Featuring clothes from retailers including E&Ms, the commentators said “it was absurd to travel to Paris for clothes” when they could get such beautiful garments in Aberdeen.
A highlight of the show was canvas beachwear, which made its debut at E&Ms, featuring checked trousers, a sleeveless jacket and a cap, as well as woolen swimwear.
‘Off the peg’ fashions had replaced dressmaking, a trend that continued throughout rationing and the utility clothing of the Second World War.
In 1947, the arrival of couture designer Christian Dior’s New Look were an antidote to unflattering uniforms and basic fabrics of the war years – nipped in waists, full skirts, hats and femininity continued into the 1950s.
The annual hat sale at E&Ms proved popular and was said to draw women like “magnets” as they fought for a bargain.
One particularly good sale in 1956 made the news when an eager hat hunter “grab five hats at once and, determined to hold onto them in the crush, tried one on with her right hand, held three in her left hand and the fifth in her mouth”.
Social and cultural change swept across Britain as the country lead the way in music and fashion during the Swinging Sixties.
But Esslemont and Macintosh remained popular – as well as stocking the shift dresses and pea coats, shoppers were reminded that good customer service trumped any trends.
One advert declared: “There is only one Esslemont and Macintosh, it’s the name that instantly suggests reliable goods of enduring quality, attentive service, and just that atmosphere which characterises a first-class firm.”
Profits soared in the 1970s and – helped by the oil boom in Aberdeen – E&M saw record sales in 1973, its centenery year.
The decade brought a wholesale modernisation of the ground floor: the traditional arcade shopfront was replaced and a new entrance was created to complement the move to a more open-plan shop floor in the 1960s.
Alterations and improvements give a new look to the shopping experience at Esslemont & Macintosh in 1962. But some things remained, it was explained that the colour-scheme stayed muted “in tradition of E&M’s good taste”.
And maintaining its reputation for a personal shopping experience, the new lift was not automatic but still operated by Charlie Gordon who was “so popular with the customers” – a post he held for 38 years.
In 1989 the business made a radical change to the streetscape by adding a glass bridge between its two stores on Union Street.
Joint managing director Norman Esslemont said it would encourage shoppers to visit both stores.
End of an era
But by the 1990s, department stores were falling out of fashion. The start of Sunday trading helped E&Ms keep up with the changing times.
Christmas initiatives including “a temporary sexual apartheid” were brought in so embarrassed male shoppers could buy make-up and lingerie “discreetly” during men-only sessions.
And in 1998, E&Ms embraced the future and had the internet installed, but the digital age took its toll on many traditional businesses as the new Millenium dawned.
The company departed from the Esslemont family in 2005 after disagreements over its future, and it was taken over by English retailer Owen and Owen.
Sadly, Owen and Owen went into administration in February 2007. The shutters came down on 134 years of quality and heritage on May 5, with the loss of 107 jobs.
The sale of the century even saw the shop fittings and fish from the tank snapped up by customers keen to clinch a piece of Aberdeen’s history.
Although the ringing of the tills and hoards of shoppers are long gone, the Esslemont and Macintosh name lives on after the iconic building was redeveloped as a restaurant in 2019.