Sydney's home furnishing stores, 1890-1960

Until the 1960s, Sydney-siders usually 'went to town' to shop for furniture and furnishings for the home. 

​There were dozens of specialist furnishing stores and department stores with furnishing sections in the city centre. Many were concentrated in 'furniture precincts', first along George Street and then from the 1920s around the city circle railway stations and the southern part of Pitt Street.

The decline of home furnishing shopping in central Sydney from the late 1950s was influenced by rising rents, lack of parking and a general population move to the suburbs. Shopping patterns also changed with the development of drive-in suburban shopping centres, the first opening at Top Ryde in November 1957.

A legacy of the city stores is their trade literature such as catalogues and associated ephemera: those used to illustrate this exhibition are part of the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection (CSL&RC).



Three heavily laden trucks driving
'12 tons of catalogues from Anthony Horderns to country customers', illustration from: Thomas J Redmond, The History of Anthony Hordern and Sons Limited, January 1938. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Anthony Hordern & Sons was arguably Australia's largest retailer from the late 19th through to the mid-20th century. Few companies in Sydney or Australia could match the size of Hordern's business: the scale of its stores, variety of stock and services, diversity of manufacturing enterprises and number of employees.

The origin of the firm extends back to the drapery business of Ann (Mrs Anthony) Hordern at King Street Sydney, established in 1823. Ann & Anthony Hordern eventually moved to Melbourne in 1839, but their sons, Anthony II (1819-1876) and Lebbeus returned five years later to set up their own drapery firm in George Street. The business moved to larger premises in the Haymarket in 1856 and by the time Anthony II's sons, Anthony III (1842-1886) and Samuel (1849-1909), joined the business in 1869 the firm was called Anthony Hordern & Sons. During the 1870s, the company purchased several surrounding buildings and reconstructed them into the substantial 1879 Palace Emporium with a staff of over 300.

More sites were added in the 1880s, by which time Anthony Hordern & Sons called themselves 'Universal Providers', selling a huge range of goods, organised into distinct departments. A number of Hordern family members also established their own retail stores in the 19th century and became rivals for trade, the most notable being Hordern Brothers.

A major fire in 1901 gutted most of the Hordern buildings and forced a temporary move to the exhibition building at Prince Alfred Park. It also influenced Samuel Hordern to construct an entirely new building, the New Palace Emporium at Brickfield Hill, where all the stock could be housed under the one roof. When this Albert Bond-designed five-storey building was opened in 1906 (a sixth storey was added in 1914-15), it stretched across half a city block and three street frontages: George, Pitt and Goulburn Streets. Many of the materials used in the building including iron castings, polished marble, woodwork and embossed steel ceilings were produced and/or finished at Hordern's own factories.

One of the first factories established by Anthony Hordern & Sons was a workshop to repair damaged furniture imports, set up in the late 1880s. By 1894, the workshop had been transformed into a fully functioning furniture making facility, as illustrated in an Anthony Hordern & Sons catalogue of that date (TC 658.871 HOR). A bedding factory had also been established by this time at Hordern's iron foundry, followed by an enamelling works, brass foundry, copper and tinsmith's shop, marble works, clothing factory, sporting goods workshop, bicycle works, bakery and printing office which produced a multitude of leaflets, advertising material and general catalogues.

Anthony Hordern & Sons famous red cloth-bound general catalogues were produced between about 1894 and 1924. These catalogues allowed Horderns to tap into the lucrative country market and mail order trade. Horderns also encouraged people from the country to visit its store, especially during the annual Royal Agricultural Society Show (Easter Show). By the 1920s, many stores claimed that the busiest day of their year was Easter Saturday. From the 1890s, Anthony Hordern & Sons also displayed a vast array of its wares at the Easter Show, eventually erecting a permanent pavilion. This practice continued until at least the 1950s: the 1935 catalogue published by Anthony Hordern & Sons specifically for the Easter Show illustrates everything from agricultural equipment to fashion goods and home furnishings.

Anthony Hordern & Sons prided itself on selling almost any good imaginable, from the mundane to the magnificent.

Anthony Hordern & Sons prided itself on selling almost any good imaginable, from the mundane to the magnificent. Its 1914 general catalogue, which extended to over 1500 pages, illustrated the opening of a fine art gallery in Hordern's Brickfield Hill store and featured marble statuary, French bronzes, the finest hand cut crystal glass and ceramics by Royal Doulton, Wedgwood and Royal Copenhagen.

By the 1920s, the New Palace Emporium also offered customers other services such as tea rooms, a post and parcels office, rest rooms, public phone booths, a branch of the Commonwealth Bank and the 1928 Mail Order catalogue announced the opening of a Thos Cook & Son travel agency. The store was renovated in the 1920s and 30s to make space for the above new services and to accommodate extra facilities for a staff numbering approximately 3000, such as a library, surgery, dining room and class room.

Rival retailer, Waltons Ltd, eventually took over Anthony Hordern & Sons in 1970 and closed Hordern's city store in February 1973. The building was then occupied into the 1980s by the NSW Institute of Technology and a number of small businesses. After much debate during the early 1980s about the fate of the famous Brickfield Hill store, the NSW government announced in 1985 that it would be demolished. The failure and imminent demise of the once grand Anthony Hordern & Sons building was a symbol of the passing of large scale retailing from the southern end of Sydney's central business district. Anthony Hordern & Sons' city store was finally demolished in 1987.

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2. A HALL & CO

Idealised room view from the cover of a catalogue
Idealised room view from cover of catalogue: A Hall & Co Ltd, Furnishing catalogue, 191?. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums FTC 749.20492 HAL

A Hall & Co was a retailer of home furnishings and manufacturer of furniture. The company began trading at 567 George Street in January 1889, but quickly expanded to occupy 561-567 by 1897. Although established by Thomas Hall, the company was named after his wife Annie, and according to an 1897 billhead their head office was in Great Eastern Street London.

An advertisement in the Town & Country Journal for 1897 claimed that A Hall & Co were "the largest home furnishers in NSW" with stock "displayed in 20 large showrooms". A Hall & Co initially imported all of their furniture and furnishings. However, it seems that the company began to manufacture furniture locally by 1897 as a number of locally made items are illustrated in the catalogue of this date. For a few years in the early 1920s, a furniture factory was located on the corner of Goulburn and Brisbane Streets in Surry Hills.

An advertisement in the Town & Country Journal for 1897 claimed that A Hall & Co were "the largest home furnishers in NSW" with stock "displayed in 20 large showrooms".

The firm advertised extensively in country newspapers and had a thriving mail order business. To accommodate the growing trade, A Hall & Co extended their premises in 1913 and then again in 1919 to double the floor space to six storeys. A 1910s Furnishing catalogue (FTC 749.20492 HAL) shows that stock encompassed a huge range of furniture, mattresses and bedding, mangles, fenders & fire irons, carpets and linoleum, table covers, blinds and curtains. However, other trade literature from this period suggests Hall & Co's focus was on furniture: this is demonstrated by their 1915 Mission Furniture catalogue (FTC 749.20492 HAL/1) and bill posters from the 1910s and 20s (TE 749.20492 HAL).

In 1934 A Hall & Co moved premises to 364-370 Pitt Street. The move was an indication of the growing retail strength of Liverpool/Pitt Street and the declining power of the southern part of George Street following a major relocation of tram routes from George to Pitt Street and the opening of Museum underground railway station in 1926. The department store, Anthony Hordern & Sons, was also prompted in this period to realign its Brickfield Hill emporium by constructing a spacious new Pitt Street entrance.

A Hall & Co remained in family hands for much of its existence but was eventually sold to E A Greenwood Ltd in 1962 and the entire stock sold off by May 1965.

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3. Beard Watson & Co

Beard Watson catalogue for the drawing room
'Fine decorative fabrics for window hangings and dwarf curtains', Beard Watson Ltd, Modern furniture VI: The drawing-room, Sydney, 1921. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20492 BEA/6


Beard Watson & Co was renowned in Sydney as a retailer and manufacturer of high-class furnishings for the home. The company was founded in 1889 when the furnishing business of Mark Albery & Co was taken over by partners William Henry Beard (1842-1903), James Henry Watson (1841-1934) and James Kebblewhite (1864-1930). Initially Beard Watson focused on the retail of carpets, floor coverings and furnishing fabrics from its premises at 361 George Street. However, in 1901 the company broadened its scope when it acquired the business of quality furniture manufacturer Walker, Sons and Bartholomew. Shortly after this date, it appears that William Beard and James Watson left the business.

Furniture became a central feature of Beard Watson's business in the early decades of the 20th century, demonstrated by a series of catalogues produced in this period. A 1917 article in The Australian Manufacturer stated of Beard Watson that the "furniture it sells, and particularly the furniture it produces, is distinguished at once for its good workmanship and for its artistic beauty." At this time, the factory in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern employed more than 150 workers in all areas of furniture manufacture.

By the early 1920s, Beard Watson had diversified beyond furniture, floor coverings and furnishing fabrics into glassware, china, household linen and kitchenware. A 1938 gift catalogue reveals this large variety of stock. But unlike a number of other Sydney drapers that would eventually become department stores, selling all manner of goods, Beard Watson focused solely on home furnishings.

A 1917 article in The Australian Manufacturer stated of Beard Watson that the "furniture it sells, and particularly the furniture it produces, is distinguished at once for its good workmanship and for its artistic beauty."

Beard Watson strove to maintain a high reputation in all aspects of its business. This is shown in advertisements that appeared throughout the 1920s and 30s in The Home, a prestigious magazine for the well-heeled consumer. Beard Watson also supplied furnishings for a number of artist-designed 'modern' rooms at the celebrated 1929 Burdekin House exhibition. An art gallery was added to the store in the 1950s and in the 1960s, Beard Watson was offering customers free expert advice from some of Sydney's leading interior decorators.

Beard Watson was taken over by hardware retailer Nock and Kirby in 1959, but the firm continued to trade under its own name. The company opened branch stores in Wollongong, Canberra (1955), and the Sydney suburbs of Gordon (1957) and Dee Why (1963). In order to combat less than successful sales at its Sydney city store, in 1964 the fifth floor of its six-storey building was turned over to an 'economy furniture section' to broaden its customer base. Then in 1966, the city building was sold to insurance giant AMP with the bottom three floors leased back by Beard Watson, halving the size of the original store. Hampered by poor sales and high rents, the city store finally closed in early 1973. In May 1973, electrical and furniture retailer Sydney Wide opened its 28th branch on the site of Beard Watson's George Street store.

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4. Bebarfalds

Detail of catalogue cover showing store and name and address of Bebarfalds.
'Service as sure as the rise of the sun'; detail from back cover of: Bebarfalds Ltd, More frocks for less money, Sydney, c1929. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TC 646.1 BEB/2

Bebarfalds was a retailer of home furnishings and manufacturer of furniture, trading for many years from its landmark location opposite the Sydney Town Hall on the corner of George and Park Streets. The establishment date of the company is variously given in Bebarfald's later catalogues as either 1852 or 1864. However, the founder of the company, Barnet Bebarfald (c1831-1894), arrived in Melbourne from England in 1852, and by 1857 was in partnership trading as Harris & Bebarfald at 19 Lonsdale Street West. Bebarfald had set up his own business by 1860 as an 'importer' but in 1863 left Melbourne for new horizons in New Zealand, establishing an enterprise in Dunedin. Finally in the early 1870s, the Bebarfald family moved to Sydney: in the 1873 Sydney Sands directory, Barnet Bebarfald is listed as operating a 'furniture warehouse' at 256 Pitt Street.

Around 1894, Bebarfalds moved to its long-term home opposite Sydney Town Hall. The company soon acquired the adjoining premises and around 1907 constructed a new four-storey building across the site. A catalogue from this period, Where and how to furnish, (FTC 749.20491 BEB) illustrates the wide range of home furnishings sold by Bebarfalds – the list of departments included furniture, bedsteads, bedding, linoleum, carpets, furnishing drapery, manchester, crockery, glassware, ironmongery, go carts, perambulators, pianos, mangles, etc. By 1920 Bebarfalds had begun manufacturing its own furniture: the Redfern factory is illustrated on the back of its Sectional catalogue of medium priced furniture (TC 749.20491 BEB).

Bebarfalds was a retailer of home furnishings and manufacturer of furniture, trading for many years from its landmark location opposite the Sydney Town Hall ...

Bebarfalds have arguably become best remembered for its Bebarfald-BlueBird sewing machines, introduced around 1917 (though the Bluebird brand name did not appear until after this date) . Elegant timber cabinets made at Bebarfalds' furniture factory concealed British-made Vickers sewing machines, giving the impression of a substantial piece of furniture that would sit in harmony with other home furnishings. Bebarfalds offered customers free dress making courses and established an advisory bureau headed by Mona Moncrieffe. The c1929 catalogue, More frocks for less money (TC 646.1 BEB/2), is an overview of the services offered to sewing machine customers and suggests the success of the enterprise: a sewing machine factory was established in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt and a new showroom set up in Collins Street Melbourne.

Bebarfalds also established a home planning bureau and in 1927 published a substantial volume, Safe home planning (TCQ 728.37 BEB). This book, subtitled 'the most complete and most authoritative book on home planning, building and furnishing ever compiled and produced in Australia', included contributions from a number of experts including architect Augustus Aley and landscape designer Max Shelley, and covered subjects ranging from purchasing land for a home to installing electricity, planning a garden and every aspect of furnishing the home. The bureau also offered a proto interior decorator service where customers could be supplied individually-tailored home furnishing schemes.

In 1929, the company constructed a new eight-storey building designed by architects Kent & Massie on the site of its old premises. The building still stands though two-storeys were added by 1967 resulting in the removal of the heavy cornice. About this time Bebarfalds considered expanding its business beyond home furnishings to include drapery, millinery and fancy goods but decided against this enterprise and sold off its unused drapery showcases in 1934. Instead, in 1931 the company invited Woolworths to open a new branch of its store across a section of the ground floor space.

Expansion of the business included the opening of new branches: in 1940, Bebarfalds stores were located at Newcastle, Parkes, Wollongong and Lismore, as well as a BlueBird sewing machine showroom in Brisbane. After World War II suburban branches were opened and by 1965 these included Parramatta, Cabramatta, Caringbah, Fairfield, Janalli, Maroubra, Stanmore, Sutherland and West Ryde. In the same year, however, Woolworths obtained the long-term lease of Bebarfalds city store and in 1968 the company was taken over by Ajax Insurance Limited. Bebarfalds’ suburban stores continued to trade under the Bebarfalds name until around 1973 when they became part of Macy’s Emporium (Sydney) Pty Ltd.

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5. David Jones

David Jones catalogue, c1895
David Jones & Co, Art furnishers, upholsterers & decorators [trade catalogue], Sydney, c1895. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums FTC 658.871 DAV

The David Jones name has long been synonymous with retailing of fine merchandise and is one of the few Sydney department stores to survive into the 21st century. This long-standing company began in 1838 when Welsh-born immigrant, David Jones (1793-1873), established a drapery business on the corner of George and Barrack Streets.

After surviving a bankruptcy scare in the 1850s, the company prospered with the Jones family maintaining a significant interest through David's son, Edward Lloyd, and his grandsons, Edward Lloyd, Eric and Charles Lloyd Jones (1879-1958) who was Chairman of the company between 1920 and 1958. A new four-storey building was constructed on the existing George Street site in 1887 with two extra floors added in 1906, the same year David Jones became a public company.

The David Jones name has long been synonymous with retailing of fine merchandise and is one of the few Sydney department stores to survive into the 21st century.

The newly constructed George Street building allowed the company to expand its range of stock to include furniture and home furnishings. Although David Jones exhibited a Huon Pine bedroom suite at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition, it was only from 1889 that company was listed as furniture manufacturers in Sands Sydney directories, with the factory located in Kent Street. An Art furnishers, upholsterers and decorators catalogue (FTC 658.871 DAV) dating to the late 19th century, illustrates a number of room views and declared that furniture could be made to order, repaired, polished and reupholstered. In addition, furnishing fabrics, carpets and linoleum were sold and customers were able to have carpets taken up, beaten and relaid. A new eight-storey factory was constructed in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills in 1914 (extended again in 1935), principally for the production of clothing and leather goods, at which time furniture manufacture may have ceased.

David Jones' positioning as a quality retailer was expressed through its catalogues, advertisements in journals like The Home, and through its store displays. The construction in 1927 of the new H E Budden & Mackellar designed nine-storey building on the corner of Elizabeth and Market Streets extended this perception. The plain exterior concealed marble staircases, beauty salons, a palatial restaurant overlooking Hyde Park and its own art gallery (opened 1944).

The old George Street store became known as the Men's store until another city building, designed by Mackellar & Partridge and constructed in Market Street in 1938, assumed this title. From around 1920, David Jones ceased selling furniture and floor coverings, but continued to retail such homewares as dinnerware, glassware, napery, bedding and soft furnishings. After World War II, the George Street store became more focused on home furnishings such as china, glassware, electrical equipment, kitchen fittings and the latest 'labour saving' appliances. Then from the late 1950s, the Market Street store began to sell homewares and in 1960 reintroduced furniture and floor coverings to the range.

By this date, David Jones had opened branches in Sydney's suburbs, regional areas and other state capitals. The original George Street store continued to trade until the early 1970s at which time it was sold and the site redeveloped. In 2007, there were 35 stores in the David Jones portfolio and it remains one of the few stores in central Sydney to sell home furnishings.

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6. F Lassetter & Co

Cover of catalogue
Image of Lassetter's George Street frontage as illustrated in: F Lassetter & Co, Furniture catalogue, Sydney, c1900. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TCQ 747.20491 LAS

F Lassetter & Co started life as an ironmongery business, becoming one of Sydney's largest 'universal providers' by the end of the 19th century. The firm's origins can be found in the company, L Iredale & Co, where the tireless and innovative Frederic Lassetter (1828-1911) became a partner in 1850. Ten years later, Lassetter had taken charge of the company and by 1863 changed the name to F Lassetter & Co.

Ironmongers specialised in stock made of all types of metal. As one of the largest ironmongers in Sydney, F Lassetter & Co eventually sold everything from steam engines, agricultural machinery and tools, to builders hardware, light fittings, kitchen ranges, fireplace grates and cutlery. By the end of the nineteenth century, Lassetter became a true universal provider with the addition firstly of glassware, crockery and furniture departments, and then after 1894 of drapery, millinery, tailoring and groceries. The expanded number of departments led to Lassetters' showrooms extending their George Street frontage and occupying buildings directly behind in Clarence and Kent Streets. And by 1910 the company claimed to employ nearly 1000 workers.

A furniture catalogue from around 1900 (TCQ 749.20491/LAS) shows that the company had also branched into the manufacture of furniture, bedsteads and wire mattresses with factories in Clarence Street and Surry Hills.

F Lassetter & Co started life as an ironmongery business, becoming one of Sydney's largest 'universal providers' by the end of the 19th century.

F Lassetter & Co’s expansive nature was matched by its enormous publishing activities. For about a decade to 1914, Lassetters produced a massive catalogue of its current stock almost every month that was usually over 1200 pages in length. From about 1909, this was called 'Lassetters monthly commercial review' and was sequentially numbered.

Frederic Lassetter remained at the helm of the company until his death in 1911. His son, Henry Beauchamp (1860-1926), took over Lassetters, but the company only survived until 1926 at which time its entire stock was purchase and sold by rival universal provider, Anthony Hordern & Sons. By 1933, the George Street showrooms had been taken over by hardware retailer, Nock and Kirby.

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7. Grace Bros



Grace Bros Broadway store, 1928
Grace Bros Broadway store featured in: Grace Bros Ltd., Grace Bros' general catalogue 1928-9, Sydney. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TCQ 658.871 GRA/3

From its location just outside Sydney's main business district, Grace Bros grew to become one of the city's largest department stores and by the 1960s had developed a huge network of branches in suburban Sydney and regional NSW. English immigrant brothers, Joseph Neal (1859-1931) and Albert Edward Grace (c1863-1938) established their first store in George Street West (Broadway) in 1885. 

The story of Grace Bros up until the First World War is one of rapid and constant expansion. A new four-storey building was completed in 1896 to house furniture and ironmongery departments and a series of other buildings were erected up until World War I. To provide the latest power supply to light and operate these buildings, a private electricity plant was constructed in 1903. However, Grace Bros made arguably its greatest impact on Sydney’s landscape with the erection in 1904 of a five-storey building on the western corner of Broadway and Bay streets topped with a glass and steel globe bearing the company name  that became a symbol of the company (a second matching globe on the opposite side of Bay Street was not erected until 1926).

A general catalogue from around 1910 for Grace Bros, 'The Model Store' (TC 658.871 GRA) maps out each of the company's buildings and each of its departments on floor plans. The 1913 catalogue (TCQ 658.871 GRA) features photographs of Grace Bros' buildings including its new four-storey furniture palace and furniture repository in Bay Street, across the road from its main store.

Grace Bros imported most of its stock in this period, and in order to buy direct from English manufacturers they established a London buying office in 1908. However, the company began making its own clothing as early as 1899, and established a factory in nearby Chippendale from which by 1913 they were also fitting upholstery and making mattresses and picture frames.

Grace Bros removal service, established in 1911, became an important and highly visible part of the company's business portfolio: the 1923 furniture catalogue stated that the company specialised in interstate removals by road, rail or sea. And the numerous catalogues produced in the 1920s illustrate the huge range of stock and services offered by the company that boasted 3000 employees by 1923. The general catalogue of that year illustrated a pharmacy, hairdresser and portrait photography services, while the 1927 furniture catalogue showed colour images of the showroom floor with furniture extending across 3.5 acres.

... a five-storey building on the western corner of Broadway and Bay streets topped with a glass and steel globe bearing the [Grace Bros] name ... became a symbol of the company

Grace Bros' huge range meant the company could appeal to a wide variety of tastes and incomes. A comparison with other Sydney home furnishing stores of the period shows that the price of bedroom suites, for example, started at amongst the lowest prices available and stretched to some of the most expensive. The Queensland maple bedroom suite with oxidized silver gum leaf handles (1926 furniture catalogue, TCQ 749.20492 GRA/2) exhibited at the Empire Exhibition in London and the interior decoration and painted furniture by artists, Thea Proctor and Roi de Mestre, (The Home magazine advertisement, April 1927) were not only pricey, but also the latest in fashion.

The early 1930s were difficult for Grace Bros due not just to the depression, but also because the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and diversion of city tram routes affected passing trade. The construction of the substantial Morrow and Gordon designed Grace Building (1930) on land bounded by York, King and Clarence Streets proved to be an ineffective attempt at countering changed traffic flows. However, while the Grace Building was designed to have a display area on the ground floor, upper floors were offices, imagined as places where buyers and sellers could meet and discuss samples. As a result, the company decided to open suburban branch stores, beginning with Parramatta in 1933 and Bondi Junction in 1934, while a five-storey furniture repository was opened at Chatswood in 1938.

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8. JA Booth & Co

Black and white image of department store building.
Front cover detail of: J A Booth & Co, Catalogue of furniture 1933, Sydney. Illustration features J A Booth & Co's main store on the corner of Pitt & Goulburn Streets Sydney. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TC 747.20493 BOO

Although J A Booth & Co was a Sydney furniture and furnishing retailer for over 50 years, the company started life in a very different manner: as tea merchants. The business was established around 1890 in Liverpool Street Sydney but by 1904 had relocated to the corner of George Street West and Jones Street, Broadway. It was only around 1919 when H Manuel sold his furniture shop on the opposite corner of Jones Street, that J A Booth & Co acquired the premises and entered the furniture trade.

Around 1931, J A Booth & Co made a major move from the edge of central Sydney to the corner of Goulburn and Pitts Streets in the Brickfield Hill area, right in the middle of a burgeoning strip of home furnishing retail stores. The new location was known as the McIlrath corner, named after this firm of grocers, with the new building constructed in 1928 to an H E Budden & Mackellar design. The six-storey brick structure provided J A Booth & Co with larger, more modern showrooms and the building was featured on the front cover of its 1933 'Catalogue of furniture' (TC 749.20493 BOO).

[JA Booth & Co] described themselves as "manufacturers, importers, exporters, wholesale and retail furniture warehousemen and lounge suite specialists".

J A Booth & Co's 1933 catalogue featured a large volume of furniture, including a number of suites made of Queensland maple or walnut, as well as carpets, beds and bedding, ice chests and radios. By this date, the company had a regional branch in Hunter Street Newcastle and they described themselves as "manufacturers, importers, exporters, wholesale and retail furniture warehousemen and lounge suite specialists". Like most Sydney furnishing stores of the period, J A Booth & Co offered furniture at a large range of prices to appeal to customers on a wide variety of incomes, while at the same time claiming to offer better value than any other store in New South Wales.

J A Booth & Co remained in business until the 1970s but moved from its premises on the corner of Goulburn and Pitt Streets around 1958. The building on the old McIlrath corner site survives and in 2007 is occupied by the Mandarin Club.

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9. McDowells

McDowell's catalogue, c1928
'The McDowell Way to furnish a flat for £50'. McDowells Limited, Furnish the McDowell way, Sydney, c1928. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20492 MCD/1

McDowells was a successful department store located in George Street near the General Post Office. The company had its origins in a partnership between three drapers, John McDowell (c1858-1936), Charles Johnston and W J Coogan, who opened their shop in 1889. By 1895, the partnership had changed and was known as McDowell & Hughes, and in 1917 it became McDowells Ltd.

The 1925 purchase of W T Waters & Co, owners of an adjoining King Street building, allowed McDowells to expand and gave the store another street frontage. It also led to a major store re-fit, installation of a 600-700 seat cafeteria and employment of extra staff. It is possible that the company only began selling furniture and home furnishings after this date. The small, single-colour 'Modern Furniture' catalogue from around 1925 (TC 749.20492 MCD) suggests that the size and scope of this part of the business was modest in this period. The preface to the catalogue simply states that McDowells 'sells dependable furniture and furnishings… at the keenest prices.'

The small, single-colour 'Modern Furniture' catalogue from around 1925 ... states that McDowells "sells dependable furniture and furnishings… at the keenest prices."

McDowells was a small department store when compared to Sydney competitors Anthony Hordern & Sons, Grace Bros and Marcus Clark, and appears to have relied on solid value-for-money stock and a good reputation. Nevertheless, the company continued to grow, particularly after World War II, helped by McDowells central location. By the early 1960s, branch stores were opened in the Sydney suburbs of Hornsby, Caringbah and Dee Why and in 1964, the company could boast 1200 employees.

McDowells remained in family hands for three generations but was eventually taken over by rival department store, Waltons, in 1972. The city store had ceased trading in February 1971, was then sold by the company and demolished soon afterwards.

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10. Marcus Clark & Co

Black and white image of department store building.
The Marcus Clark building at Railway Square, completed 1928. Illustration from: Marcus Clark & Co, 'New Century' down & kapok quilts and bedding, Sydney, 192?. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TC 643.53 CLA

From a modest start in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1883, Marcus Clark & Co rose to become one of the city's largest department stores with a network of branches in towns and suburbs across Australia. Henry Marcus Clark (1859-1913) established the company when he purchased the drapery business of his former employer, John Kingsbury. The business quickly expanded, trebling itself within five years, and soon opened new stores in Marrickville and Bondi Junction. In the Sydney Sands directory for 1894, Marcus Clark was listed as a "wholesale and retail draper, tailor, milliner, boot warehouse and fancy repository; the largest, best lighted and most comfortable establishment in Newtown, the floor space covering nearly an acre."

In 1896 Marcus Clark & Co opened a store closer to the city on the corner of George & Harris Street near Railway Square. It was, however, a slightly different concept as it stocked less expensive wares than its other stores and was given the name Bon Marche, a reference to the famous Parisian department store (but also the name of the store in Liverpool, England where Henry Marcus Clark was apprenticed). The success of the store led to a larger building being constructed on the site in 1909 but also influenced Marcus Clark to build more stores around Railway Square.

Marcus Clark & Co made arguably its biggest and most lasting mark on Sydney in 1906 when the James Nangle-designed Central Square building, known as the flat-iron building, was erected on the corner of George and Pitt Streets, Railway Square, on the site of an early toll-gate. For all visitors entering the city from the south it was an impressive sight: a landmark nine-storey structure of 150 feet in height, the tallest in Sydney at the time. It was probably also about this time that the company's stock expanded greatly: a catalogue from around 1910 (TCQ 749.20491 CLA) lists departments ranging from manchester to ironmongery, musical instruments to stationery.

Marcus Clark was listed as a "wholesale and retail draper, tailor, milliner, boot warehouse and fancy repository; the largest, best lighted and most comfortable establishment in Newtown, the floor space covering nearly an acre."

Henry Marcus Clark’s early experience in Newtown may have alerted him to the advantages of regional and suburban retailing. Although a number of retailers opened branches outside the city after World War II, Marcus Clark & Co’s growth was unprecedented: the 1915 Sydney Sands directory listed stores in Newtown, North Sydney, Armidale, Dubbo, Goulburn, Gunnedah, Inverell, Lismore, Lithgow, Narrabri, Newcastle, Nowra, Tamworth and Wollongong. Many of these country locations were actually modest sized ‘sample rooms’ rather than large stores. However, they could still provide customers with personalized service and competed directly with city retailers like Anthony Hordern & Sons which made large profits from the lucrative mail order trade. Country customers could order goods and have them shipped from Marcus Clark & Co’s city stores, conveniently located next to the parcels post office at Central Railway.

Many department stores of the early twentieth century had their own manufacturing facilities. Marcus Clark & Co's manufactures included timber and cane furniture, quilts and bedding. The colourful 1920s 'New Century' down and kapok quilts catalogue (TC 643.53 CLA) emphasised the company's local production.

Marcus Clark & Co emphasised value for money, like many department stores of the day. The preface to a furniture catalogue from around 1914 (TC 749.20491 CLA) states that "you can very likely get more timber and upholstery for your money – but nowhere can you purchase more lasting satisfaction and furniture friendliness." By this date, a new furniture showroom had been constructed, also on Railway Square, to be extended in 1928 by architects Spain & Cosh into another impressive 10-storey building with clock tower.

On the death of Henry Marcus Clark in 1913, his son Reginald Marcus Clark (1883-1953), who was knighted in 1939 and then known as Sir Marcus Clark, took over the business. The company continued in family hands until taken over by rival department store, Waltons, in 1966. Marcus Clark's Bon Marche store had already closed in 1961 and moved to the Sydney suburb of Liverpool and the Railway Square store closed in July 1965.

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11. Mark Foy's

Illustration of stores in colour.
Mark Foy's stores, corner of Elizabeth and Liverpool Street Sydney; illustrated in: Mark Foy's Ltd, The Home Beautiful, Sydney, c1915 (detail). Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20491 MAR

Most Sydneysiders associate Mark Foy's with its impressive former home, now used as the District Court, covering almost a complete block of the city on the corners of Liverpool, Elizabeth and Castlereagh Streets. But Mark Foy's first retail outlet in Sydney was a short stroll up the road in Oxford Street. It was established in 1885 by Francis (1856?-1918) and his brother Mark Foy (1865-1950) and named in honour of their father who had run a drapers store in Bendigo and then Melbourne. Following the death of Mark Foy senior (1830-1884), the operation of his store in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood was taken over by his partner William Gibson and became the well-known department store Foy & Gibson.

The innovative and flamboyant Francis Foy drove the company in its first decades. The Oxford Street store was extended just two years after it was established, a London buying office was set up in 1890 and the business moved from being a draper to a department store. As well as clothing, fashion accessories and jewellery, Mark Foy's supplied all manner of home furnishings. A furniture catalogue (TCQ 749.20491 MAR) from around 1901 claimed that Mark Foy's could supply the front door mat, back door mat and every item of home furnishing in between. Departments represented in the catalogue include: furniture, art drapings, beds and bedding, carpets and linoleum, crockery glassware and furnishing ironmongery, lamps and lampware, toilet ware, refrigerators and kerosene stoves.

A furniture catalogue from around 1901 claimed that Mark Foy's could supply the front door mat, back door mat and every item of home furnishing in between.

Mark Foy's massive new store, mentioned above, was opened in 1908. Known as 'The Piazza' and designed by architects McCredie & Anderson, the three-storey store (two floors + basement) with turreted mansard roof was partly modeled on the grand Bon Marche department store in Paris. Business was so brisk that another new building was erected in 1913 on the eastern side of Liverpool and Elizabeth Streets to house the furniture and carpet departments, and then one year later yet another building was constructed nearby in Elizabeth Street for ironmongery and hardware. A knitting factory and bulk store were erected in Goulburn Street in 1920 and the 'Target' woollen mill was established in the Sydney suburb of Mascot in 1921. Finally, architects H.E. Ross & Rowe made considerable extensions to the main store in 1927-30, creating a six-storey building but keeping the style sympathetic to the original.

Mark Foy's benefited from being located next to the Museum underground railway station constructed in 1926. Francis Foy had chosen the site well, the architects even making provision in the original 1908 design for a subway entrance to connect the station directly to the store. By 1926, Mark Foy's Autumn/Winter catalogue (TC 658.871 MAR/1) indicates its range of goods had expanded to encompass sporting goods, a pharmacy, perfumery, optometrist, hairdressing saloon, florist, framers, stationery and book department, toys, luggage, brushware, kitchenware and tools. The 1932 catalogue (TC 658.871 MAR/2) added a mail order and delivery service for groceries.

Mark Foy's fortunes began to suffer after 1960, like many large city retailers, due to a number of factors including changing demographics and shopping patterns. In 1968, the company was taken over by McDowells Ltd which was in turn acquired by Waltons in 1972. The store traded under the Mark Foy's name until leased by Grace Bros in 1980. In 1983 Grace Bros closed its doors and retailing finally ceased at the 'Piazza' building.

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12. Morley Johnson

Morley Johnson's Christmas catalogue, 1950
Morley Johnson Ltd., Home and Christmas 1950, Sydney. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20495 MOR

Morley Johnson Ltd was a firm of furnishing retailers and furniture manufacturers, with a retail outlet located in George Street Sydney opposite St Andrew's Cathedral. The company first appeared in the Sydney Sands directory for 1907 and in its earliest advertisements referred to itself as 'The money-saving house furnisher'.

Morley Johnson prided itself on good value for money and surviving catalogues show that the firm sold everything for the home: furniture, curtains and other soft furnishings, beds and bedding, carpets and floor coverings, lamps, radios, dinnerware and kitchenware. A 1930s catalogue (TC 749.20493 MOR/1) offered customers a trade-in of old furniture for new, a 12-month free trial of their radios and free measure and quotes for the installation of blinds, curtains, linoleum and carpets.

Morley Johnson prided itself on good value for money and surviving catalogues show that the firm sold everything for the home ...

In the 1930s, Morley Johnson offered customers payment through lay-by that comprised a deposit and then payment by a series of installments. However, a 1958 catalogue, 'Everything for the home' (TC 749.20495 MOR/1) introduced a new system where no deposit was necessary on any purchase. This change of policy is perhaps evidence of the more competitive retail environment that existed after World War II for firms like Morley Johnson.

After several years of declining earnings, Morley Johnson closed its George Street store in 1964 and within two years was taken over by Milton Investments Ltd. In 1965, electrical and furniture retailer Bonds & Kirbys opened a branch on the site of Morley Johnson's former George Street store. Morley Johnsons was one of a number of furnishing stores that disappeared from central Sydney in the 1960s and 70s as city rents rose and shopping centres were built in the suburbs.

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13. R H Gordon & Co

Page from catalogue, with illustration.
An illustration of R.H. Gordon's floor coverings department from: R. H. Gordon & Co. Ltd, Household furnishings, Sydney, 1939. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20493 GOR

R H Gordon & Co was a retailer of home furnishings, credited with introducing to Australia an installment payment system known as cash orders. Irish immigrant, Robert Henry Gordon (1863-1935) established the company in 1901 together with three partners: G E Wise, H A Scott and C G Scott. Gordon had previously obtained experience in the retail trade with Sydney retailers Hordern Bros, Rileys Ltd and David Jones before opening his first small shop in the Sydney suburb of Balmain.

The success of the business allowed Gordon to open a new, larger shop front in the city at 506-508 George Street in March 1903. And by 1907 a branch store opened in the inner-western suburb of Newtown. Gordon's city store moved down the road in August 1925 to occupy the Joseland & Vernon building at 569-181 George Street, the former home of drapers Ball & Welch. The move allowed Gordon to be part of a major precinct of furniture and furnishing retailers that had formed around the southern end of George and Pitt streets. Finally, when the next door business of competing furnishing retailer, A Hall & Co, moved to Pitt Street in 1934, Gordon bought the premises and extended his business along the road.

The success of R H Gordon & Co in the early years can be attributed in large part to the establishment of its cash order payment system. The Retail Traders Association Journal of NSW for May 1935 credited R H Gordon & Co with introducing cash orders to Australia. This scheme, which was similar to the system of ‘check trading’ first used in England in the 1880s, worked this way: once the customer chose the item(s) required, a bedroom suite for example, R H Gordon & Co would order and pay for the item from the manufacturer, probably getting a percentage of the total as commission. The customer would then pay R H Gordon & Co in installments for the amount of the purchase plus an agreed interest fee. R H Gordon & Co's 'Household Furnishings' catalogue (TC 749.20493 GOR) from around 1938 outlined its 'easy payment plan' of set weekly payments on purchases from five to 150 pounds.

The success of R H Gordon & Co in the early years can be attributed in large part to the establishment of its cash order payment system.

Credit schemes and installment plans for home furnishings had existed in Australia for many years before R H Gordon & Co introduced its cash orders. However, large retailers of home furnishings were often reluctant to offer credit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Anthony Hordern & Sons catalogue for 1894 stated its terms were 'spot cash' only though money could be remitted by various methods like cheque or postal order. However, the success of Gordon’s scheme led to the introduction of cash orders by a number of other home furnishing retailers and influenced the evolution by the 1920s of larger and more sophisticated companies such as that of Australian Cash Orders Ltd. By the late 1920s, the success of credit schemes meant that most retailers had no choice but to introduce new payment policies – the Anthony Hordern & Sons catalogue for 1928 outlines a proto lay-by system known as the DPS (or Deposit Purchase System).

Following the death of Robert Henry Gordon, a family connection was maintained in the company through his son, Henry James (1891-1959), and son-in-law Kenneth Thomas Hardy, who remained as directors of R H Gordon & Co. In 1960, R H Gordon & Co was taken over by rival retailer Waltons Ltd and the stock and building were sold off in early 1961.

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14. Simpson Lee & Co

Black and white image of department store building.
Simpson Lee store exterior in Pitt Street, Sydney, c1950. Photo © Simpson-Lee family; Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Starting in 1910 James Simpson-Lee (1883-1963) and a group of businessmen established a home furnishing store called H L & S Simpson & Co. The company was located at the southern end of central Sydney at 410-412 Pitt Street, but in 1925 moved next door to larger premises at 414-418 Pitt Street. Finally around 1929, the name of the company was changed to Simpson Lee & Co.

Two catalogues issued by Simpson Lee & Co in the late 1920s and 30s show that the business sold almost everything for the home: furniture, beds and bedding, brassware, caneware, canvas goods, carpets and linoleum, lampshades, manchester, blinds, curtains, glassware, crockery, cutlery, kitchenware and wallpaper. In addition, the company accepted trade-ins of old furniture and provided furniture repair, upholstering and carpet cleaning services.

While the store supplied English, European and Australian goods, the company's emphasis on Chinese-made merchandise set them apart from other home furnishing stores at the time. In May 1930, Mr Harry Foy, Far Eastern Import and Export manager for Simpson Lee & Co, opened a Hong Kong office for the company in order to facilitate trade between Australia and East Asian countries.

The Simpson Lee company letterhead announced that the firm were 'Complete home furnishers' and 'Eastern merchants', with specialties such as Chinese handicraft, camphorwood chests, brassware and lacquerware. Other Chinese goods included cloisonné, ivories, laces, tea, ginger and needlework.

While the store supplied English, European and Australian goods, the company's emphasis on Chinese-made merchandise set them apart from other home furnishing stores at the time.

In addition to Simpson Lee & Co’s own catalogues, the CSL&RC hold around 30 trade catalogues issued by manufacturers and distributors of merchandise that was sold by Simpson Lee & Co. The catalogues date from between the mid 1920s and the early 1950s and were issued by Australian, European and Asian merchants. Examples include porcelain from Hackmack & Co (Peiping China), Chinese artware from I. Shainin & Co (Shanghai), Elbrook super carpets from Elbrook Inc (Tientsin China), brassware from Myttons Ltd (Melbourne), door and cabinet hinges from Kirchhoff & Co (Germany) and teakwood chests from China Art Embroidery Company (Hong Kong).

In 1936, Simpson Lee & Co launched a home furnishing plan in which customers could pay for their goods via small weekly installments. The success of the plan, according to advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald in late 1938 and early 1939, led to a proposal to extend Simpson Lee & Co's city premises: doubling the size of the building to six storeys with a pagoda-like structure on top of the building. However, the extension was never realised, possibly due to the onset of World War II.

Simpson Lee & Co was taken over in 1954 by Consolidated Finance Corporation Ltd and was thereafter operated as Consolidated Home Furnishers.

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15. WW Campbell

Illustration of W W Campbell & Co's city store. The background has yellowed.
Illustration of W W Campbell & Co's city store from: W W Campbell & Co, Furnishing the home, Sydney, c1925. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums TCQ 749.20492 CAM 

W W Campbell & Co was a furniture manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer established by William Webb Campbell (1861-1928) in 1886. Campbell learned the trade from his father, William Branch Campbell (1826-1906) who operated the company, W B Campbell, between about 1875 and 1883 from the 'Royal Furnishing Arcade' at 426 George Street. W B Campbell was a furnishing retailer and manufacturer of furniture and bedding. Upon William Branch’s retirement, the company passed to his sons, William Webb, Alfred Branch, Chas J. and Henry, and became known as Campbell Bros.

Campbell Brothers continued in business until around 1890, though W W Campbell & Co established its own shop front first in Castlereagh Street, then George Street and finally from around 1897 at 249 Clarence Street. W W Campbell & Co also seems to have taken over W B Campbell’s factory at Cowper Wharf Woolloomooloo where 60 to 70 workers were employed. By 1902 the furniture factory was located at Miller Street Pyrmont and an advertisement in the Sydney Sands directory stated that W W Campbell & Co were 'manufacturers of furniture, bedding, wire mattresses, and every description of bamboo rush and wicker furniture' and 'importers of British, American, Eastern furniture, bamboo blinds, chairs, lounges &c.' A catalogue from around 1900 (TCQ 749.20491 CAM) illustrates the company’s strong emphasis on cane furniture, with different types referred to either as bamboo, rush, wicker, rattan or pith.

'manufacturers of furniture, bedding, wire mattresses, and every description of bamboo rush and wicker furniture [and] importers of British, American, Eastern furniture, bamboo blinds, chairs, lounges &c.'

By the mid-1920s when W W Campbell & Co issued a Furnishing the home catalogue (TCQ 749.20492 CAM) aimed especially at country residents, the company was selling a wider range of home furnishings including: carpets, linoleum and other floor coverings; mattresses, sheets, blankets and quilts; lamp shades, standard and table lamps; blinds, curtains, curtain rods and fixtures. A later catalogue from around 1939 entitled, Enjoy the comforts of a well furnished home (TCQ 749.20493 CAM), features all of the above furnishings while maintaining the company’s original strengths in cane and other furniture.

Another important aspect to Campbell's business was its wholesale trade. Until at least the late 1930s, W W Campbell & Co advertised themselves as 'Wholesale and retail furniture warehousemen'. The catalogue from around 1925 stated that its sizeable wholesale trade enables buying on a large scale and selling at reasonable prices. In addition, the company claimed that their costs were kept to a minimum as they had "no expensive window-shows and heavy shop-rent" like other similar stores in Sydney. In fact, from around 1897 to the 1970s, W W Campbell & Co was located at 249 Clarence Street, behind the main furnishing precinct on George and later Pitt Streets. Even in the late 1930s after a major extension including an additional frontage on Kent Street, the building was still referred to as a warehouse.

W W Campbell & Co was taken over by Tallerman and Company Pty Ltd in 1967 but continued trading under the Campbell name until the early 1970s.

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Detail of catalogue cover.
Australian Home Furnishers (ACO Ltd), We furnished our home on the easiest possible terms, Sydney, c1948 (detail). Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums TC 749.20494 ACO

In 1948, Australian Home Furnishers was the retail arm of the home furnishing and credit business called Australian Cash Orders. Australian Cash Orders Ltd had been established around 1920 specialising primarily in a credit payment scheme known as 'cash orders'. By 1923, the company was also a retailer of home furnishings, trading from premises in Pitt Street.

The cash order system was introduced to Australia by furnishing retailer R H Gordon & Co and was similar to the English scheme known as 'check trading' first used in the 1880s. Gordon's scheme was adapted and expanded by a number of companies by the 1920s, including Australian Cash Orders Ltd. 

By the 1930s, Australian Cash Orders had a portfolio of 750 Sydney companies from which customers could purchase goods or services: furnishers, drapers, milliners, tailors, opticians, jewellers, retailers of cameras, electrical goods, stoves, baths and even dentists participated in the scheme. A customer could order goods from any of the participating stores, Australian Cash Orders Ltd would pay the company for those goods and the customer would then pay Australian Cash Orders the amount owing in installments plus an agreed interest fee. Retailers liked the scheme as they were paid for goods in full quickly without the cost of administering their own credit facility. The scheme was also popular with wage earners as it enabled them to purchase home furnishings and other goods.

Home furnishings like furniture, carpets and bedding were often too expensive for customers on low wages to buy for cash.  ... by the 1920s the growing suburbanisation of Australian cities like Sydney meant that [credit or installment payment] schemes were essential to pay for new houses and furnishings.

The Australian Home Furnishers catalogue (TC 749.20493 ACO) from around 1948 outlines the company's payment plan. Customers were given two years to pay for goods above the value of 25 pounds, no interest was payable for the first three months and half the interest was refundable if full payment was completed within 10 months. Furnishings advertised in the catalogue including furniture, carpets, bedding, kitchenware, cots and radios - for each was listed the full price, expected deposit and per week repayment.

Home furnishings like furniture, carpets and bedding were often too expensive for customers on low wages to buy for cash. Credit or installment payment schemes were used by furnishing retailers in the 19th century, but by the 1920s the growing suburbanisation of Australian cities like Sydney meant that such schemes were essential to pay for new houses and furnishings. The cash order scheme exploited this opportunity with an easy-to-use system that benefited customers and retailers alike. The cover of the Australian Home Furnishers catalogue from around 1948, which featured a young couple glowing with anticipation as they strode the path to their new home, revealed the intentions of the company.

Australian Cash Orders Ltd was taken over by Milton Investments Ltd in 1968 at which time the Australian Home Furnishers retail outlet probably closed.

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Place card / menu card for David Jones' 100th birthday ball, Sydney Town Hall, 28th May 1938, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.
Place card / menu card for David Jones' 100th birthday ball, Sydney Town Hall, 28th May 1938, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Photo © Sydney Living Museums

Search the Library catalogue to look for more Sydney furnishing store catalogues in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC).

About the Author

Portrait of man in dark shirt against sandstone wall.
Michael Lech
Collections Online
As our curator of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and online collections, Michael has a deep interest in the history of houses, interiors and domestic furnishings in Australia.
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