The Ballad of Bellas Hess

The Ballad of
Bellas Hess

Did you ever wonder what Bellas Hess was besides a name on a Supreme Court decision? It was one of the big-five general merchandise catalogs that thrived during the 20th century — the others were Sears, Roebuck, Alden’s, Spiegel and Montgomery Ward. But none deserves its place in history more than Bellas Hess.

The company was founded in the late 1800s as National Cloak & Suit and renamed National Bellas Hess around 1910, as folklore has it. It was located between Washington, Morton and Barrow streets in New York’s Greenwich Village. “We have no agents or branch stores,” it said in its 1920-21 fall-winter catalog. “We sell only direct from this catalog and anyone claiming to represent us is an imposter.” But what a catalog it was. The whole book was illustrated and included many color pages. There was no photography.

Many items seem quaint today — like sleeping caps, union suits, corsets and “knickerbockers “ (the short pants that schoolboys couldn’t wait to outgrow). Some were expensive. An embroidered crepe blouse went for $9.98. An “ultra smart style” woman’s suit could cost up to $47.95 — no small amount in 1920. Ladies’ shoes could be bought for around $4.98. Except for sweaters and work shirts, there wasn’t much for men. By 1928, the firm now known as National Bellas Hess had annual sales of $40 million, and this number grew by $17 million when it acquired a competitor: The Charles Williams Stores.

Where does the history come in? It started in 1966, when Bellas Hess, now located in Kansas City, fought a bid by Illinois to force it to collect state sales and use taxes. The matter was litigated right up to the Supreme Court. And in May 1967, Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the 6-3 majority, wrote that a company had to have “nexus” with a state — i.e., a physical presence — to be liable for the use-tax burden. Failing that, states could not impose “the duty of use tax collection and payment upon a seller whose only connection with customers in the state is by common carrier or the United States mail,” Stewart wrote. He added: “The very purpose of the Commerce Clause was to ensure a national economy free from such unjustifiable local entanglements.”

The decision which led to a period of unprecedented mail order growth, was largely reaffirmed by the High Court in the 1992 Quill case. But that didn’t help Bellas Hess much. Trapped in the downward spiral that pulled in all the general catalogs, Bellas Hess entered bankruptcy in 1971 and eventually went out of business. But its name lives on in the landmark ruling.


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