It Really Was the Greatest Store in the Greatest State

It's simply not possible to write about San Antonio's history without mentioning Joske's. The name lights up the face of any longtime San Antonian who remembers childhood visits to the store's Fantasy Land each Christmas season, but the store was much more than that, being part of the city for more than a century.

It began, as so many things here did, with an immigrant from Germany. Julius Joske started the store that later became "the Biggest Store in the Biggest State" in 1873 just steps from the Alamo. By 1882 the store was advertising that it received "fresh goods" every day, with "clothing for men and boys wear in great variety." (On the same page was a reminder of our Wild West background - a store called Emerson's advertised "guns and pistols repaired")


As it grew, Joske and Sons became Joske Brothers Company, run by Julius's son Alexander Joske. Like other big stores of its day, Joske's was a classic department store that sold almost everything - in April of 1920 Joske's advertised clothing, books, china and carnations for 79 cents a dozen. That year, Joske's would even build you a Fiesta float or decorate your car for the parades. Postwar inflation was a problem in 1920, so Joske's knocked 20% everything that fall in an effort to "break the back of high prices." By then it was already known as "the Big Store," and in 1923 the department store Santa appeared - but only in the window to get kids and parents to tour the store's Toytown. By then Joske's was already 50 years old.


The Depression lowered prices - a sale in January 1935 offered roller skates for 79 cents, table lamps for $1.19 and men's suits for $24, but sales improved enough that by 1939 the store remodeled its exterior, producing the familiar fa├žade still visible today downtown. Just after the start of World War Two, Joske's was selling women's nylon stockings in several shades for 99 cents a pair. No one knew that rationing would soon come along and make nylons more valuable than gold, literally.

In mid-War Santa was telling Texans to "save time, save money, save your gas and tires" by doing all their shopping at the store downtown where Joske's had "everything under the Christmas tree." By then Joske's had its familiar "Charge-a-Plate," a metal plate in a leatherette holder that listed the customer's name, address and account number. Sales clerks would use it to print those facts on a sales invoice so the customer could be billed at the end of the month. From such accounts later came Visa and MasterCard.


After the war Joske's went into the business of selling those newfangled television sets. My favorite ad (naturally) came in late 1950 when a Joske's double-page spread claimed that "Television Makes a New and Happy Life!" The store not only sold Ambassador televisions (a huge 16-inch console was $269.95), but also furniture, clothing and popcorn poppers for the family enjoying "the magic of television." KENS-TV went on the air that year, joining WOAI. San Antonio wouldn't have a third TV station until 1957, and cable was still a generation away.

Joske's expanded in the early 1950s, right around Saint Joseph's Catholic church (still there today). It added the Camellia Room, site of many "ladies' lunches" over the years, as well as the Chuck Wagon, where my mother took me for lunch on shopping days and urged me, as so many other Texas moms did, to finish my food in order to see the cowboy scene on the plate beneath it. Joske's was "the Biggest Store in the Biggest State," located "By the Alamo, San Antonio." Joske's was huge - about ten acres of shopping, all air-conditioned, at a time when women and men dressed up to go downtown. The admission of Alaska to the union in 1959 required a rewrite and Joske's became "the Greatest Store in the Greatest State." Still, Joske's was where you went to get almost anything - even, in 1960, boy's pajamas that featured the Battle of the Alamo on them.


It wasn't Alaska that killed Joske's but the changes in retailing. Gulf-Mart, Fed-Mart, the Spartan stores, Solo-Serve and other discount stores started in the 1960s what Wal-Mart finished later in the century. Joske's expanded in the 1970s as its name was used to replace other department stores in the state, but the Texas oil recession of the 1980s finished it off after more than 100 years.

It really shouldn't matter. Joske's, after all, was simply a business constructed to sell things to people. Businesses go broke all the time. But Joske's huge success, long life, and the welcoming feeling it gave folks when they came in to shop made it something special that will remain until the last old person who used to go there as a wide-eyed child is gone.


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