If Santa Clause ever stopped giving out Christmas gifts and opened a toy store, FAO Schwarz would be it. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can be greeted by a real-life Toy Soldier or see more toys in one day than you can in a month in the stores in your home town. But how many people know the tale of FAO Schwarz was started over 150 years ago, making it the oldest toy store in the world, or how a giraffe took over?
The FAO in FAO Schwarz stands for Frederick August Otto Schwarz who was born on October 18th, 1836 in Herford, Westphalia Germany. He would go to school until he was 14, when he took an apprenticeship with a store merchant to learn about the world of business. In 1856, at the age of 20, Frederick immigrated to the United States to join his two older brothers in Baltimore, Maryland. His brothers were already successful in the toy business and Frederick served as an apprentice for them. The toys they carried in the store were “high-end” ones imported from Europe. Six years later in 1862 his brothers made him a partner and the brothers opened “Toy Bazaar” in Baltimore. That year he also married Caroline Clausen.
Frederick worked in “Toy Bazaar” for eight years, growing a family with Caroline (they would eventually have six children: Anna, Ida, Henry, Frederick, Emilie and H. Marshall) and working towards owning his own store. Then, in 1870, Frederick and his family moved to New York City where he would open “Schwarz Brothers – Importers” on 765 Broadway. Using the knowledge he learned from his apprenticeship in Germany, as well as that with his brothers, Frederick would run his store while seeking advice from his brothers on European toys, toymakers and contacts.
In 1875 Schwarz would start a tradition that he would carry on in his stores (and others would copy) when he would have a live Santa Clause in the store during the Christmas Season. By 1876 Schwarz was doing well enough to open his second store at 1159 Broadway and issue a mail order catalog for his clients. In 1880 Frederick would combine his two stores, move to 42 East 14th Street in Union Square and rename the store “FAO Schwarz”.
In 1897 Schwarz was the most popular toy dealer in the world. The store moved to 39-41 West 23rd Street, a double building with seven floors and a basement a block long full of inventory. The store was well known for its extremely well crafted merchandise of handmade dolls, stuffed animals with real fur, toy soldiers, models of ships, working trains, carriages and other replicas of the then modern world. In 1910 the store moved once more to 303 5th Avenue and offered more than 16,000 items.
On May 17th, 1911 Frederick August Otto Schwartz, a man who dedicated his life to toys, died at the age of 75, due to illness. He was buried in Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Frederick’s family would run the store after his death, moving it to 745 5th Ave, where it would remain for 55 years. The store had a grand marble staircase, a slide from the first floor to the main level, and window displays at Christmas that would draw crowds. It survived the “Great Depression” and put stores in other states making the New York store its “flagship store”.
By 1962 FAO Schwarz celebrated its 100th anniversary, but starting in 1963, when the Schwarz family sold the store, it would go to several owners starting with Parent’s Magazine in 1963. In 1970 Parent’s Magazine would sell the store to W.R. Grace & Co. who would sell it to Franz Carl Weber International of Zurich, Switzerland in 1974. By the 1980’s there were 33 stores which got cut down to 22, eliminating those, like ones in a hotel lobby, that weren’t making money. In 1985 FAO Schwarz was ahead of its competitors when it was the first store in the United States to carry the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). That same year Weber would sell the store to investment firm Christina Companies, Inc. for $10.5 million.
Month’s later CEO of Christina Companies Peter Harris and investment banker Peter C. Moore would buy FAO Schwarz. Together the two Peters formed a “brain trust” of retail experts to get the store out of the trouble it was in. Sparing no expense, in 1986 the Peters moved the store to its current location at 767 5th Ave & 58th Street. The new store would be two stories tall and 40,000 square feet. For its “Grand Opening” the store was covered in red cloth with a white bow like a present with a giant card that read, “Do Not Open Until November 6th”. Then New York Mayor Ed Koch led the opening ceremonies while tons of balloons and people dressed like famous toy characters stood in front of the store.
The store continued to carry one of a kind toy items (like a half-sized Ferrari that could reach 30 mph and cost $12,500.00), a toy finding service, home delivery of toys, new toys, and even re-issued the catalog which offered toys from the store as well as more exclusive items just for the catalog (like a 14-child overnight party at the store that included airfare, a stretch limousine, room at The Plaza and a tour of the city with the tour guide being a real-life toy Pinocchio for $18,000.00). In the middle of the store a 25 foot tall computer programmed animated clock would sing “Welcome to Our World” every 15 minutes (the clock remained in the store from 1986-2004).
In 1988 the movie “Big” filmed in the store featuring the giant electronic piano. Despite the shoppers the movie brought in, by 1990 FAO continued to close stores that were not selling well. The two Peters would sell FAO that year to NV Koninklijke Bijenkorf Beheer for $40 million.
During 1995 FAO Schwarz opened its website www.fao.com and began selling exclusive merchandise with The American Museum of Natural History. FAO also co-produced the Broadway Musical “Big”. Cable shopping network QVC teamed with FAO Schwarz in 1997 featuring a themed two hour episode around FAO Schwarz called “FAO Schwarz—The Premiere”. Plans were made to expand the store to 60,000 square feet while the company had 39 stores, 23 of which were in malls. The catalog was sent to 6 million people and more store exclusive FAO themed toys were made with toy companies like the FAO Barbie which came with a FAO bag and a credit card. When the movie Titanic hit theatres FAO carried an exclusive doll for $395.00 and a Baccarat crystal version of the ocean liner for $2,500.00
By 2001 FAO launched FAO Baby, first in the flagship store and then in malls, replacing the existing FAO stores that weren’t selling well. FAO Baby sold items from Baby Gund, Lamaze, Fisher Price and Playskool. The toy stores also carried exclusive toys for the PBS show “Caillou”.
By 2009, despite being a popular tourist destination FAO’s sales declined and the store was purchased by Toy ‘R’ Us (which that same year purchased mall toy store KB Toys). In 2012 FAO celebrated 150 years of being a toy store, the oldest in America. On February 11th, 2012, Frederick August Otto Schwarz was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame by the Toy Industry Association. Members of the Schwarz family were present including one great grandchild, three great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild.
Today the New York FAO Schwarz flagship store is a huge tourist stop bringing in millions of visitors yearly. Trips to the store are memorable the moment you walk through its front doors where you’re greeted by a real-life Toy Soldier. Besides all the toys and the “Big” piano there are two types of tours you can take through FAO with their Toy Soldiers.
One starts 1 hour before the store opens and has a Toy Solider take you through the store on a 45 minute private tour, talking about the store, giving you a chance to check out the toys, and ending with a Continental Breakfast on the “Big” piano. The second is a class trip or group trip tour during store hours, talking about the store and gives exclusive use of the “Big” piano. FAO also offers private parties, like the “Cookie Party” in the FAO Party Room with a Toy Soldier. All this can be found on their website where you can call for prices and more information.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Frederick August Otto Schwarz’s life and legacy is with his own words:
“I have made toys my life study. It is a splendid issue and aside from the commercial question, there is more solid satisfaction in dealing with childhood playthings, and in knowing the joy one is sending out into the hearts of the little ones, than in selling any other commodity in the world.”