Inside the luxurious department store founded by one of the most important figures in Mormon history
Courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah; Yutong Yuan/Business Insider
- Brigham Young was the powerful second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- But this Mormon leader also founded a retail co-operative during his tenure with the church.
- That retail co-op, called ZCMI, opened up a luxurious flagship department store in Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young was one of the most important figures in Mormon history, perhaps second only to his predecessor Joseph Smith.
As head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Young led his church to colonize Utah, waged a war against the United States, and advocated the expansion of slavery in the years before the Civil War.
He also founded a successful retail outfit.
Young's role in setting up the Zion's co-operative Mercantile Institution - or ZCMI - wasn't simply a pastime or a diversion. Young launched ZCMI in order to further Mormon interests and economic success within Utah. But the business co-operative survived long enough to become an icon of Salt Lake City until the very end of the 20th century.
Here's a look inside the now-defunct business, courtesy of The University of Utah's photo archives:
ZCMI was the brainchild of Brigham Young. One of the most important figures in Mormonism, Young was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Young wanted to create a cooperative of Mormon businesses in Salt Lake City.
The LDS president alleged that non-Mormon merchants were cheating Mormon businesses in the region.
By founding a new retail cooperative, Young could feasibly ask his followers to boycott non-Mormon businesses altogether.
So, in 1868, the Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution — ZCMI for short — was born.
The co-op's bylaws held that "shareholders and institutional members" were required be "full tithe-payers" to the LDS Church, according to historian Thomas Alexander.
This means that the company's leadership gave 10% of their annual income to the church early in the business' history.
Around 150 independent retailers purchased merchandise from ZCMI. According to the Daily Herald, these independent stores were "created and operated by local communities and LDS wards."
Alexander wrote that "businesses that joined the cooperative" also "displayed the all-seeing eye and the motto 'Holiness to the Lord' with the ZCMI name."
According to the Daily Herald, those signs would signal to customers that they were purchasing from an LDS-owned business.
Such stores weren't just confined to Utah. The Daily Herald reported that ZCMI-affiliated operations spread to Wyoming, Idaho, and South Dakota.
ZCMI eventually settled on its signature flagship store in Salt Lake City, purchasing German-Jewish businessman Nicholas S. Ransohoff's local department store.
Alexander wrote that this store would become ZCMI's "principal retail outlet."
The business almost went under shortly after its founding.
Blizzards in Utah tangled up the co-op's supply lines and delayed orders.
Then ZCMI's share price collapsed and the coop was saddled with a $1 million debt during the economic crisis of 1873, according to Alexander.
Young boosted the company with his own money and funds from the Church, and he saved the co-op by expanding its presence into different communities across Utah.
After those initial struggles, ZCMI quickly expanded from its origins as a collection of Mormon-run businesses with a prominent urban department store.
The co-op quickly became a powerful and popular business, especially within the LDS community.
But the church didn't just provide ZCMI's primary customer base.
Its involvement with the co-op was so strong that The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that Mormons who failed to support ZCMI were excommunicated.
It's a somewhat unsurprising fact given the LDS Church actually owned a majority interest in the co-op from Young's tenure until ZCMI's 1999 collapse.
But the nature of ZCMI would change quite a bit over the course of its history, as Utah transformed from a far-flung territory to a full-fledged state.
The co-op began cranking out its own products, manufacturing footwear, clothing, fabrics, furniture, and beauty products.
By the 1970s, over 100 years after the co-op's founding, ZCMI's Salt Lake City flagship store had become an upscale attraction ...
... that frequently touted its status as one of the first department stores in the United States.
Utah newspaper The Daily Herald published a retrospective review of ZCMI, writing that, for "most LDS women over 50," lunching at the department store's famous Tiffin Room was "almost a rite of passage"
The Tiffin Room served as ZCMI's most storied dining space, serving up "open-face roast beef sandwiches," "chicken pot pies," and "chocolate sodas," according to the Deseret News.
The store attracted a number of celebrities over the course of its run, drawing in Bob Hope, Liberace, and Margaret Thatcher, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune.
But by the 1990s, it became clear that ZCMI's good fortunes had come to an end, thanks to increasing competition.
Like many traditional department stores, ZCMI struggled to take on the rise of big-box retailers.
And so the storied Salt Lake City retailer shuttered in 1999, after it was bought by the May Company. The ZCMI name survived another two years, before May decided to rebrand it.
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