Department Store District

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Department Store District


Congress Street from the intersection of Brown to Oak Street

Among the major stores on both sides of Congress Street during the era of downtown department stores from the turn of the century through the 1950s were Eastman Bros. & Bancroft; Thomas Smiley Co.; Porteous, Mitchell & Braun Co.; Rines Bros. Co.; and J.R. Libby Co. More women were employed as salespeople in stores than in any line of work. In 1907, the wages of the 500 saleswomen ranged from $2 a week (paid to apprentices) to $20 and $25 a week (paid to department heads), although the average was $7 a week. In the early period, women sales clerks complained about such conditions as having to stand all day without stools, but over the years, a camaraderie developed and the stores set up rest/lunch rooms for the women, each run by an organization of the clerks themselves.

Philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce (1931-1996) bought buildings along Congress Street for rehabilitation and to be offered at low rents in order to encourage businesses to return to the city and generate jobs. Among her other projects in Portland were founding the Maine Bank and Trust Co. to help local banks survive a banking crisis, rescuing Nissen Baking Co. to save 300 jobs, supporting the building of a children’s hospital at Maine Medical Center, now The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, named after the wife of former President George H.W. Bush and mother of former President George W. Bush. (The Bushes maintain a summer residence in Kennebunkport.) Mrs. Noyce was also the driving force behind building the Portland Public Market on Preble Street, Cumberland Avenue and Elm Street, in 1998. It closed in 2006 and is now owned by Power Pay and used for its offices. Elizabeth Noyce also sponsored the Cumberland County Civic Center and donated paintings and funds to the Portland Museum of Art. She was known for singlehandedly revitalizing a sagging downtown following the 1980s.

The former Porteous Department Store (522 Congress Street) building was acquired by and converted to the Maine College of Art in 1993.

Historic photos courtesy of Collections of Maine Historical Society, used by permission of Maine Historical Society. It is exempt from the Creative Commons license of this project.