Menken Bros Dry Goods

... Memphis' forgotten Department Store



The dry goods firm of Menken Bros was for many years one of the largest of its kind in the Southwest and occupied a full block on Main Street in Memphis.  J. S. Menken had originally established the firm in 1862 and within 2 years, it had grown enough for his two brothers to become partners.  The first Memphis location was at 261 Main across from Court Square on the NW corner of Court.  The firm grew into the next door building at 263 and continued to prosper.  Menken purchased a building at the corner of Main and Gayoso and built a palatial five-story modern store which became the showplace of the city.    Today the Menken Bros are rarely mentioned whenever there's talk of the Goldsmith's, Lowenstein's, Gerber's, and Bry's


Click on small photos to see an enlargement

Menken's first Memphis store was located at 261 Main Street across from Court Square.  It was begun by J. S. Menken in 1862.  He was a "natural" in business and enjoyed immediate success.  By 1865  his brothers Nate and Jules had  joined him as partners and the firm name became "Menken Bros".   Their success continued until 1878 when Nate bcame a victim of the yellow fever epidemic.  Upon his death, two new partners were added to the firm - William Horgan and J. S. Andrews and the success of Menken Bros continued ...

The first Menken  

The first Menken The first Menken The Menken Building

1868 ad

1872 ad

1877 ad


After 20 years of prosperity, Menken Bros found the 261-263 Main Street building totally inadequate to accommodate the immense stock it was necessary for them to carry to meet the demands of their vast trade.  They desperately needed to expand and the firm began planning a move to new and much larger quarters.   But ...

1878 Billhead


1881 Billhead




  Suddenly in 1882, employees came to work and found that the store was locked.  Without any warning, the company had failed.   The owners attributed much of it to the "shortness of the cotton crop" and indicated that it had created danger for all the dry goods stores in the city.  And they indicated that they fully planned to resume business in a few days.


And then in short order all assets were secured by Louie Stix of Stix, Krouse & Co of Cincinnati with the understanding that they would set the Menkens on solid business footing as soon as arrangements with the creditors were closed.  And the employees had been paid immediately.  A notice appeared in the paper the day of the closure, directing them to come to a nearby address and receive their money.  Thus the crash ended quickly and Menken began anew and soon opened a new store ...








The New Menken Building at Main and Gayoso

Menken's new building at 371-379 Main Street was the largest in the city and equal in size to any in the Southwest.  The two elevators alone cost $10,000 and every convenience that money could provide was added to the store.  The entire front of the building was made of fine, heavy plate glass.  There were 30 different departments in the store with 75 male and 50 female assistants in the various departments.  Menken was the first house in Memphis to employ salesladies and to divide their dry goods into "departments" - although Goldsmith's will later occupy this block and claim to be the first to offer "departments".  

The new Building  

J. S. Menken

J. S. Menken had supervised everything about the new building and nothing was omitted.  The main entrance was 25 feet wide and opened into a large vestibule.  There was a grand aisle running through the center with the various departments on either side.   The stairways and furniture were made of mahogany and there were ten superb chandeliers on each of the five aisles.  The lower floor was devoted to women's clothing, men's furnishings, glasswares, boots and shoes - the second floor to cloaks, shawls, millinery, and carpets.  The third and fourth floors were devoted to the wholesale business.  The fifth floor was used as a millinery and dress manufacturing department.  There was also a basement, used for storage and as a packing room.  

William R. Moore who knows something about the Dry Goods business was enthusiastic in his praise of the new Menken building.  "I consider this one of the finest dry goods stores in the world... There are not a dozen finer stores on earth... Stewart's is the only one in New York.  Shillito, in Cincinnati, has more goods, but it is no handsomer inside and very little larger... Macy's, in New York, covers more ground, but is a succession of old houses that were formerly residences, and can't be compared to Menken's.  There is no retail store in Chicago as handsome... London, with a population of 4,000,000, has not such a dry goods store as this.  Read the full article below:


Wm R. Moore




1893 Ad

1895 Ad

1898 Ad

1884 Billhead

1886 Billhead


1883 Plans to enlarge  

1885 Sale Ad

Menken 1895

1888 Sale Ad



 In 1886 Jules Menken retired and the firm was reorganized as the J. S. Menken Co.  A notice of this appears in the Daily Appeal (on the right), along with this interesting item:  "A visit at Menken's mammoth emporium on Thursday last was a treat within itselt.  New exhibits in the different departments were beautiful and elaborate, with flowers artistically arranged in places where they showed to fine advantage, cut glass and dainty bric-a-brac in one department, millinery and ready made suits in another. fine dress goods, crockery, art material, and last, but not least, the stationery department, brimful with artistic stationery and fancy goods, all combining to make a scene rare and beautiful, and a place so enchanting that  ladies reluctantly depart".


Jules Retires

J. S. Menken made numerous trips to Europe, where he was as well respected in the capital cities as he was at home in Memphis.  In 1891, before departing on one of his planned European trips, William Floyd, owner of a famous Memphis restaurant and one of the three finest in the city, planned a very special banquet " In honor of J. S. Menken" .   A copy of the elegant menu appears on the left.  It was printed on Silk Brocade in honor of the event, and the complete list of items appearing on the menu is shown below:

Pains de Caviar-a la Russe, Consomme en Tasse, Drink: Amontillado. Pompano Grilles a la Maitre d-Hotel, Pommes de Terre Parisianne, Drink: Haut Sauternes.  Ris de Veau Glaces aux Petit Pois, Pommes de Terre Croquettes, Drink: Pontet Canet.  Filet de Boeuf Pique aux Champignons, Asperges en Branch Chouflour a la Creme, Drink: Pommery Sec.  Punch, au Kirsch, Poulets Grilles au Cresson, Salad de Laitue, Drink: ; Mumm's Extra Dry.  Fruits, Nuts, Raisins, Gateaux Assortis - TuttiFruitti Glace, Fromage Roquefort, Cafe Noir.

William Floyud

Floyd's Restaurant

Floyd's Restaurant

Floyd's Restaurant

Floyd's Restaurant




J. S. Menken Dry Goods continued as a Memphis showplace on the corner of Main and Gayoso until January 11, 1899 ... and then it closed forever.  Around 7 PM a fire broke out in the basement and by 9 PM was a seething mass of flames and was completely out of control.  The center of the first floor soon fell and by 2:25 AM, the walls of the Menken building fell.

The next door Gayoso Hotel was evacuated but with favorable east winds, it was saved.


Fire! 1899

1899 Article



Very little is known about J. S. Menken after the store burned.  In 1903 he is superintendent of Hegeman & Co in NYC.  It's not known why the Memphis store wasn't rebuilt.  What is known is that in 1895 Goldsmith's had relocated to a building at 261-263 Main, across the street from Menken, where the current Black and White /Jolly Roger Furniture building is located.  In 1902 Goldsmith's took over what was left of the Menken building and rebuilt it into their flagship store.  The downtown store closed in 1993 and the building is still there.  It has now been renovated and houses a retail arcade and the Belz Museum.





The Menken Family

Solomon Menken, a native of Amsterdam was the matriarch of the family.  He had come to America in 1826 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio where he established the city's first Dry Goods store.  The store prospered and Solomon and his wife Galathe, had five children - Jules, Jacob, Nathan, Cordelia  and Amelia.  There were two other children,  Alexander and Rosina with a first wife who died shortly after the birth of Alexander.

Jacob Stanwood Menken was born in Cincinnati in 1838.  After his education at St. Xavier's College, he beame a clerk in his father's store.  By 1858 he became a partner in the firm of S. Menken & Sons, composed of his father, himself, and his brothers Jules A. and Nathan D. Menken.  Their business increased until they were well known over a large section of the area.  But by 1861, with unsettled conditions before the Civil War, the firm failed.  In 1865 the firm of Menken Brothers became established in Memphis.  One of their first acts was to begin paying in full, with interest, all liabilities of the old business that had failed. 

J. S. Menken  

Menken Bros

This generous act, which was not legally required, shows the integrity which characterized the Menken Brothers all through life.  Their creditors appreciated it so much that they presented each brother with a handsome solid silver service.  After the war, Jacob had settled in Memphis and established a small dry-goods store, and had gradually enlarged it until his two brothers joined him in 1865.  Sadly Nathan D. Menken became a victim of yellow fever and died during the 1878 epidemic.   In 1886 Jules Menken retired and the firm was reorganized as the J. S. Menken Co.

The success of the Menken business is attributed to the leadership of J. S. Menken.  It seems that his resources were unlimited without any of the petty brusqueness often characterized by men in business.  He was considerate with all employees with a sincere interest in each one.   In 1886 he organized the first free kindergarten in Memphis, and in 1894 the first one in the South exclusively for colored children.  He also founded the Commercial Club, whose aim was the promotion of the city's business interests.  And he donated $165,000 for the completion of the Grand Opera House.  But his noblest example of generosity was the Christmas Club - meant to spread happiness and good cheer among the poor at holiday time.  He and his wife Ray (Hart), daughter of a well known NYC merchant had no children of their own, but at the death of Nate Menken, they legally adopted his five children.  J. S. Menken died in Memphis in 1925.

Nathan D. Menken was born in Cincinnati in 1837 - the second son of Solomon Menken.  After some college he worked in a law office but soon tired of this and in 1860 joined his brothers in the dry goods business.  When the Civil War began he entered the Union army, becoming commander of General Pope's body-guard and taking part in 37 battles.  By 1865 he joined his brothers again who had moved their business to Memphis.  During the 1878 epidemic of yellow fever in Memphis, he provided funds for many who wanted to leave the city although he himself remained.  As a member of the Howard Society, he walked from house to house providing relief for the sick, until he, too, fell a victim at the age of 42.  No citizen of the city was esteemed more highly than Nathan and his memory was indeed cherished.


Jules A. Menken was with the business from the beginning.  Very little information has been located about Jules.  He retired from the business in 1886 and he and his wife moved to New York where he died in 1890

Alexander Isaacs Menken was the black sheep in the Menken family.  He didn't go into the family business.  Instead he became a musician, but is best known for marrying America's first "free spirit-sex symbol" actress-poetress Adah Isaacs Menken.  Although only married for two years, she took his name and converted to his religion.  There's much written about her and in each article, poor Alexander is reduced to a brief footnote.  More about Adah later...  It's amazing that with the hundreds of photos available of Adah, there's not one photo of Alexander.

Rosina Menken Rosinstiel was born in Cincinnati in 1824 and after her marriage lived in New York City.




... AND ...


Adah Isaacs Menken was an actress and poet - the highest earning actress of the time.  Her most famous role was "Mazeppa" which ended with her nude and riding a horse on stage.  She was born near New Orleans and married musician-conductor Alexander Isaac Menken just long enough (2 Years) to adopt his name and his religion.  If her early life is obscure, she made sure her later life was exactly the opposite.  With 4 marriages in 7 years, a flamboyant stage career, and a knack for self-promotion, she rose quickly to notoriety.  She became the opposite of women of her time - smoking cigarettes, cropping her hair and playing provocative stage roles.  

Adah once gave a press conference lying on a tiger skin, sipping champagne, and smoking a cigarette.  Defying conventional values and shocking behavior were her key to fame rather than her acting ability.  Her last stage performance was in London in 1868.  She became ill shortly afterwards and died in Paris at the age of 33.  Adah is buried in the Jewish section of the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.  Look her up.  It's fascinating reading.

Adah Adah Adah Adah-Dumas Playbill Playbill






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