LaForge, Margaret Getchell (1841–1880)

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LaForge, Margaret Getchell (1841–1880)

American businesswoman who was manager of Macy's during the department store's early years. Born Margaret Getchell on July 16, 1841, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; died on January 25, 1880, in New York City; daughter of Barzillai (or Barzilla) Getchell and Phebe Ann (Pinkham) Getchell; married Abiel LaForge (a buyer), on March 27, 1869 (died 1878); children: six.

Born and raised on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, Margaret Getchell LaForge finished school at 16 and began a teaching career in her hometown. She moved on to positions in Lansingburgh, New York, and at the Lawrenceville Female Seminary in New Jersey, before leaving the profession to work for her distant relative Rowland Macy, who had recently opened a dry goods store in New York City. (According to one source, LaForge left teaching because she had lost an eye and needed employment that would be less taxing on her vision.)

LaForge began as a cashier, but soon displayed an astounding aptitude for figures and was promoted to bookkeeper. In this position, she was responsible for training the "cash girls," and came to be known as demanding but extremely fair in her dealings. Her expertise apparently extended beyond accounting and management to other aspects of the business, and Macy grew to trust her judgment. LaForge convinced him to distinguish his store from others by using his trademark, a five-pointed star, on the letterhead and on price tags. She spotted new trends and suggested new products such as jewelry, sterling silver, gifts, and clocks, all of which became separate departments in the store. Her home furnishings department, including kitchenware and cleaning supplies, became particularly popular with women shoppers. To lure people into the store, LaForge created interesting window displays, and, when soda fountains became the rage in Europe, she established a marble-and-nickel-plated fountain in the center of the store, routing thirsty shoppers past numerous counters of enticing merchandise. By 1866, Macy had such faith in LaForge that he made her superintendent of his growing enterprise, thus freeing himself for buying trips abroad.

In 1869, Margaret Getchell married Abiel T. LaForge, a new buyer employed by Macy. Abiel had served with Macy's son in the Union Army. The couple set up housekeeping over the store and began a family. In 1871, Macy made Abiel a partner, after which Margaret worked without compensation. Although child rearing forced her to curtail her hours somewhat, she continued in the store part time, often laboring on inventory and accounts at night. (When she was pregnant with her third child, the partners left her in charge while they went to Europe on a three-month buying trip.) Abiel LaForge contracted tuberculosis and died in 1878. Margaret fell ill just two years later and died of a combination of ailments which included heart failure and an inflammation of the ovary.

sources:

Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Hower, Ralph M. History of Macy's of N.Y., 1858–1919, 1943.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts