Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Carl Company

Shoppers at the State Street store in Schenectady, ca. 1940s.
Photograph from the Carl Company Collection.
The Carl Company began as a dry goods store owned by Charles W. Carl, Sr. (1871-1940) at Medina, New York in 1891. Carl soon expanded, opening several stores in western New York State, including stores in Lockport, Brockport, Tonawanda, and Hornellsville. The Lockport store was one of the Carl Company’s earliest, opening in 1891 or 1892 and remaining in operation until 1968.

In 1906, the Carl Company shuttered several of its smaller stores to open a store in Schenectady, and Charles W. Carl, Sr. and his wife, Lily Swick Carl (d. 1976), moved to the city. The Schenectady department store was initially located in the Kinium Building at 256 State Street (now 240 State Street) before the Carl Company constructed a new building at 430 State Street in 1916, where the store remained until closing in 1991. The downtown store was further expanded in 1925, as the Carl Company acquired property on Smith Street across from the rear of the store for a warehouse and expanded the store west on State Street. In 1972, the building was renovated and modernized. By the following year, after the closure of the H.S. Barney Co. and Wallace Co. stores, Carl’s became the sole Schenectady-based department store downtown.

The Carl Company store at 288 Saratoga Road, the first of the
Carl Company's suburban branch stores, ca. 1954.
Photograph from the Carl Company collection.
The Carl Company continued to grow in the area. Its first area branch store, at 288 Saratoga Road, Schenectady, in the Mayfair shopping center (later called Willowbrook Plaza), was opened in 1954. With the opening of the Mayfair store, the Carl Company became the first locally-owned department store to open a branch location. In 1963 the Carl Company opened its Shoporama store in Rotterdam, followed by a Saratoga Springs store in 1973, a Clifton Park store in 1976, an Amsterdam store in 1981, and a Troy store in 1983. After operating as a cash-only store and offering Gold Bond Dividend stamps with each purchase since 1894, Carl Company first offered charge accounts in 1957. The company continued to offer its Gold Bond Dividend stamps until its stores were closed in 1991.

Charles W. Carl, Sr. served as president of the Carl Company until his death in 1940. Subsequently, his wife, Lily Swick Carl, served as president until 1957. Their son, Charles W. Carl, Jr. (1924-2001), served as president of the company from 1957 until 1984, when the family sold its stores to General Atlantic Corporation, a New York City-based private-investment banking firm. Charles W. Carl, Jr. chose Joel Helfman as his successor as president. Helfman served as the president of Carl Company until its stores were closed in 1991.

After 100 years of business, the Carl Company announced in February 1991 that it would cease operations. All stores were closed by May 1991. The State Street store closed on May 25, 1991. The closing of all area stores and its distribution center left 597 people out of work.

The Carl Company collection is comprised of memorabilia and records of the Carl Company chain of department stores. The collection includes a number of photographs, mostly dated from the 1940s through the 1980s, showing employees of the store at 430 State Street, annual anniversary sales, and exteriors and interiors of area Carl Company stores. The collection also includes material related to the closure of the Carl Company stores in 1991, including entries in store memory books, letters, and newspaper clippings. A finding aid for the collection can be found here.


  1. I had my first grilled cheese and tomato sandwich at their lunch counter some time in the fifties. Never forgot it. They are a staple in my own kitchen to this day.

  2. Mayfair was Mayfair, and Willowbrook was Willowbrook. They were distinct plazas, and in fact getting from one to the other was not easy. Carl's also had a store in East Greenbush, in the current Price Chopper plaza on Columbia Turnpike. Don't know when it opened, but it was here when they closed up shop in 1991.

    Somewhere I have a news article about Carl's employing an electric delivery truck early in the 20th century.

    The Carl family's charitable foundation still exists:

  3. I miss the Carl Co. The guy playing the organ in the middle of the store, the ladies running the elevators and the circus with the dancing dogs!