Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Hudson, J.L.

Detroit department store founder Joseph Lowthian Hudson was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England on October 17, 1846. At the age of nine he and his family immigrated to Ontario, Canada and soon after moved to Michigan. Hudson began his merchandising career in Pontiac, Michigan working for C.R. Mabley. Before winding up in Detroit, Hudson and his father opened a general store in Ionia, Michigan, but the store failed, hindered by the financial Panic of 1873. Beckoned by C.R. Mabley, who was successfully operating the largest men and boy’s store in Detroit, Hudson moved there in 1877 to run the store. When he and Mabley failed to see eye to eye on store operations, Hudson began his own store in 1881, establishing a shop inside the Detroit Opera House that specialized in men’s and boy’s clothing.

The business grew, moving locations until it settled at Farmer Street and Gratiot Avenue in 1891. Incorporating as the J.L. Hudson Company, the store added other lines of goods, including women’s clothing and housewares, and Hudson began to employ sale professionals to work the storeroom floor. Hudson's Department Store operated in Detroit for close to a century, and was one of the largest department stores in the country both in sales and building size.

J.L. Hudson was also the name behind the Hudson Motor Car Company. Thanks to his contribution of start-up capital, owner Roy D. Chapin named the car and company in honor of Hudson. The Hudson Car Company, which ranked only behind Ford and Chevrolet in 1929, was later acquired by American Motors.

Hudson was involved other businesses including the Dime Savings Bank, the Detroit City Gas Company, American Vapor Stove Company, American Exchange National Bank, and Third National Bank of Detroit. In 1893 a financial panic caused the Third National Bank to close and, out of a sense of responsibility, Hudson paid account holders from his own pocket, totaling $265,000 (over seven million dollars today). He was characterized by his nephew Oscar Webber as a generous benefactor who helped to lay the groundwork for what is today the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

Hudson never married and was assisted in his department store operations by his brothers, then his nephews. His family is an integral part of Detroit history: one nephew, Robert Hudson Tannahill, was a major art collector and Detroit Institute of Arts benefactor and a niece, Eleanor Clay, wed Edsel Ford. The Hudson-Webber Foundation, begun in 1943, incorporates the name of Hudson’s nephews, the Webber brothers.

On July 5, 1912 while on a business trip in Europe, Hudson died from a lung problem. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His nephews, the four Webber brothers, took over the business and it continued to thrive, becoming one of the largest department stores in the United States. Before the downtown store closed in 1983, it was sold to Dayton-Hudson in 1969. The downtown store was imploded in 1998, and the company is today owned by Macy’s.



J.L. Hudson Co. employee composite, with J.L. Hudson in the center, 1889 - 1970.102.001

Hudson's postcard, 1970 - 2012.020.255

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