Chelsea Banks McLean County History Museum
As part of its mission, the McLean County Museum of History collects and preserves artefacts and documents that tell the stories of the people who, over the years, have made McLean County their home. To do this, the museum relies on the generosity of those who donate these objects to its ever-growing collection, thus allowing their stories to be preserved and shared for generations to come. As an example, the museum recently received a century-old cash register once used at the Stern’s Furniture Company in downtown Bloomington.
The first cash register is generally attributed to James Ritty, a saloon owner in Dayton, Ohio, who created the device in the late 1870s to prevent employee theft by providing an accurate total for the day’s sales. Known as “the incorruptible cashier,” this first ledger was fairly primitive, able to add only sales totals and mark each sale with the now classic ringtone. Ritty’s register business was eventually sold in 1884 to another Dayton businessman, John H. Patterson, who founded the National Cash Register Company. This company quickly dominated the cash register market and was the manufacturer of the cash register currently in the museum’s collections.
This register was purchased in 1923 by the Stern family for use in their growing furniture business in downtown Bloomington.
The Sterns first arrived in Bloomington in 1905, when Jewish immigrant Jacob Stern established the J. Stern Company, a used stove and furniture store tucked away in half of 506 N. Main St., with an apartment for his young family upstairs.
A trained stove repairer, Stern trained each of his four sons in crafts, helping him repair and sell old stoves, delivering them to customers in town by cart. Tragedy struck the family when Stern died in 1916, leaving behind a wife and five young children. With mouths to feed and a business to run, oldest son Harry Stern dropped out of high school to run the store with his mother, Rose Stern.
The business turned out to be successful, and by the mid-1920s it expanded to fill both 506 and the neighboring building at 504. A major renovation combined them into one structure with a hall. exhibition and large windows.
After Harry Stern’s sudden death in 1937, the remaining brothers took over with the youngest, Sam Stern, at the helm.
In the 1950s, Stern’s Furniture grew to fill most of the 500 block of North Main Street with retail space and warehouse space, becoming one of the largest furniture dealers in central Illinois.
As important in community as in business, the Stern family has been a philanthropist and heavily involved in fundraising and supporting local institutions as diverse as the Moses Montefiore Temple, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the YMCA and the Miller Park Zoo. The company has also sponsored several sports teams in basketball, bowling and softball, winning several local championships.
However, all good things come to an end, and Stern’s Furniture is no exception. In 1982, after nearly 80 years in downtown Bloomington, the company moved its operations to a new location at the old Oakland Bowling Alley on Eldorado Road off the “modern main drag”, Veterans Parkway. Sam Stern, the business owner and Stern’s last surviving brother, died a few months later.
Within a few years, Bloomington’s second oldest furniture store had closed. Its original location on North Main Street was demolished in 1989 and is now a parking lot. A piece of Stern’s legacy survives, however, in an old cash register, now a permanent part of the museum’s collection and ready to continue to share their story for years to come.
Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column for the McLean County Museum of History. Chelsea Banks is the museum’s registrar.