Department stores were unknown before the mid 19th century. From Creating Digital History at NYU:[1. The Late 19th Century (1850-1899) Research Team: Stephanie Mach, Ashley Sena-Levine, Jacqueline Colognesi]
In 1846, Irish-American entrepreneur Alexander Turney Stewart built the first large dry goods retail store – the famous Marble Dry Goods Palace – on Broadway, between Chambers and Reade Streets. Although Stewart added new lines to his store, the Palace remained a place for selling cloth, ribbons, thread, sheetings, and other dry goods. In 1859, Stewart put plans in motion to erect a “super-scaled. Venetian palazzo at 784 Broadway, a full block south of Grace Church. Known simply as “Stewarts,” the palatial emporium sold a range of goods, from furniture, glassware, toys, and jewelry, to shoes, foodstuffs, and clothing. “Stewarts” was thus New York’s first department store, “a commercial symbol of every aspiring city. Alexander Turney Stewart – in addition to Rowland H. Macy, John Wannamaker, and Marshall Field – propelled retailing into a new era by diversifying his offerings, adopting a one-price system, pledging not to misrepresent merchandise, allowing free access to his establishment without the obligation to buy, and limiting dependence on credit in stocking his store.
Susan Porter Benson emphasizes the welcoming nature of the more elegant, modern department store in highlighting the principle of free entry: “these giant emporiums were as much public attractions as movie palaces, theaters, and museums. A certain heady democracy obtained: the humblest daughter of the working classes could rub shoulders with the city’s wealthiest grand dame…there were few other places where it was even possible or even likely for the two to meet.”
From the middle until the late 19th century Union Square was the commercial heart of the city and most of the . moved to the general vicinity.
James A. Hearn & Sons. Hearn’s was founded on West Fourteenth Street in 1879 and remained in the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues through the Depression.
R. R. Macy & Co. Rowland Hussey Macy moved to New York City in 1858 and established the original store on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets.
B. Altman and Company. In 1877 Benjamin Altman decided to expand his family’s original store; he had a new building designed and built at 621 Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets, on what would become the Ladies’ Mile.
Arnold Constable and Sons. (Excerpted from Wikipedia)
In 1869 Arnold Constable & Company erected a marble building on Broadway and East 19th Street, designed by Griffith Thomas. At the time, Arnold Constable was the second largest dry goods store in the city, and the building was called the “Palace of Trade” by newspapers. The building was expanded in 1872, adding carpets to its inventory and an upholstery department, and then extended all the way through the block to Fifth Avenue in 1876-77 to accommodate a wholesale department. Arnold Constable was then said to be one of the largest business establishments in the world, and the business was so profitable that the New York Herald reported in 1897 that the company was the fifth largest real-estate owner in New York City.