Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution

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Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution

Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, or ZCMI, was the first department store in America, organized in March 1868. During the early days of the Mormon pioneers’ life in the Salt Lake Valley, basic commodities from the eastern United States were scarce and costly to be imported. Some of the Salt Lake merchants took advantage of this situation and charged exorbitant prices, especially to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Consequently, Church president Brigham Young encouraged Latter-day Saints to boycott those businesses and organize cooperatives. He was also motivated by the desire for the principles Utah pioneers are known for: thrift, industry, and unity. Some of the storeowners joined the cooperative and some territory communities started cooperatives. Soon 146 Church-sponsored branches of ZCMI operated throughout the Utah territory, offering the same price for the same merchandise. Sales totaled over $1.25 million the first year.[1] These establishments were identified with a “Holiness to the Lord” sign over the front door, although they often retained individual names.

Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution
Note “Holiness to the Lord” sign atop each building

By 1876, the large Salt Lake department store had a cast-iron façade and was expanded in 1880. The facade has been preserved in the new City Creek Center as a historic landmark. The Manti, Utah, ZCMI building, owned by Luther Tuttle and Edward Fox, was deconstructed brick-by-brick and rebuilt at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution
Horses and carriages in front of Salt Lake ZCMI, Courtesy Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

The Church bought the Salt Lake Eagle Emporium from William Jennings and assimilated his conglomerate of mercantile companies into ZCMI.

ZCMI sold everything from machinery, farming items, and wagons, to construction items, such as lumber and nails; to dry goods, such as fabric, needles, and thread; to food preservation products, furniture, draperies, carpets, and beauty products. It eventually manufactured its own line of boots, shoes, and work clothes.

By 1961, ZCMI expanded into big-box retail stores in malls throughout Utah and Idaho and changed from a provincial cooperative to a publicly owned and widely respected shareholder entity.[2] By 2000, however, the company declined and the LDS Church sold it to the May Department Stores Company. For a time, the stores operated under the name Meier & Frank and later Macy’s. Some of the stores were later sold to Dillard’s.

Some of the vintage flavor of ZCMI has been incorporated into Church-owned Deseret Book[3] with a line of gifts and décor called Zions Mercantile. In 2006, a privately owned restaurant and souvenir and general store named Zions Mercantile was opened in Nauvoo Illinois.