The big history of The Little Traveler

Iconic Geneva store marks 95 years

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GENEVA – The Little Traveler, that sprawling Geneva landmark that features everything from wine stoppers to shoes, fair trade goods to birthday cards, is marking its 95th anniversary this year.

The original Italianate Victorian home at 404 S. Third St., Geneva, had been expanded over the years to its now 36 rooms. The building is considered iconic, not only to the city, but to the creation of the powerhouse Third Street shopping district, Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Museum, said of the store's near-century existence.

It was previous owner Kate Raftery who turned first a carriage house, then the main house, into a business, Emma said.

"At the age of 52, and without any business experience, Kate Raftery began what would later become The Little Traveler," Emma said.

“She was the first one who changed her home into a business, and then she encouraged others,” Emma said of the conversion of Third Street from residential to downtown business district. “They were all houses before, now they’re all little businesses.”

Emma did a presentation at The Little Traveler in July on the store’s history. She said she will repeat the presentation at an Oct. 4 event at the store.

“And we’ll be working on a coffee-table book for its 100th year,” Emma said.

Several owners

The original home was built in 1867 by Polly Patten Clark, sister of George and Charles Patten.

The house had several owners, and one of them after Clark was Orville Sheldon, who built a carriage house facing Fulton Street in 1891. When his wife died, Sheldon’s niece, Stella Buckingham, came to live with him and continued to live in the home after his death, Emma said.

Raftery and her husband first rented the carriage house around 1915, Emma said, then moved into the main house in 1919 after they bought the property.

“One of Kate’s close friends was Lucy Calhoun, wife of a Chicago attorney and ambassador to China,” Emma said. “One of her ventures began in 1912 when she was given an allowance from The Art Institute of Chicago to purchase items for them.”

Calhoun also bought items for her friend Raftery, who displayed the imported items on top of her piano in the carriage house, Emma said.

Raftery sent out invitations to friends to see what she received from China and “their interest in these items may have sparked the idea to start selling to the public,” Emma said.

An article under the heading “Talk of the Town” in the Sept. 29, 1922 edition of the Geneva Republican announced that, “The Raftery cottage will hereafter be the home of the Geneva Gift Shop, under the supervision of Mrs. Edmund Raftery.”

‘A place of beauty, charm’

Another item published nearly a month later in the Geneva Republican on Oct. 27, 1922, stated, “Altho only a few weeks old, The Little Traveler Art Shop owned and managed by Mrs. Edmund Raftery and Miss Prudence Hartwig, next door to the former’s home on South Third Street, is meeting with a great patronage and lovers of the antique and out of the ordinary articles of art are coming to this gift shop from miles about Geneva. They come largely out of curiosity, but go away patrons.”

The article also stated that “this little shop, which within itself is a place of beauty, charm and altogether cozy, one may examine but not always handle quaint wooden dolls from England, handcarved animals from Italy, real laces from China and objects of interest and beauty seemingly without end.”

Raftery sent invitations for afternoon teas and sales and brought in guest speakers to lure people into her shop, Emma said. Eventually, an expansion connected the original home facing Third Street to the carriage house on Fulton, Emma said.

Raftery relied on a cook and butler in order to offer a full luncheon, which was attended by ladies from Chicago who were driven by their chauffeurs, Emma said. The luncheons were by invitation only, she said.

The addition created a courtyard for outdoor seating during warmer months, but the area was enclosed during a later construction and is now where linens and lamps are located, Emma said.

‘The smartest shop in Chicago’

The Geneva Republican reported in its Jan. 13, 1928, edition that The Little Traveler was incorporated by Kate Raftery, her husband and Louise Forster with a capital of $50,000.

Forster was the first buyer of clothes for the store, Emma said.

“The Traveler was very exclusive and noncommercial,” Emma said. “They did no newspaper advertising, and in fact, did not even have a sign in front of the shop. Their annual spring and fall openings were by invitation only and new clothing was hidden until that day and revealed in a big splash.”

As the business grew, the Rafterys moved to 208 S. River Lane, Emma said.

The Little Traveler became famous and was a shopping destination not only for locals but celebrities, Emma said.

A fashion show at The Little Traveler was reported Feb. 2, 1935 in the Chicago Tribune, “Throngs attend Geneva Style Show.”

The Little Traveler also was featured in the December 1945 edition of Better Homes and Gardens, she said.

“The opening paragraph of the article stated, ‘I went shopping for the Christmas spirit. And I found it, unforgettably, in a rambling, homelike gift studio in Geneva, Illinois called – The Little Traveler.’” Emma said.

A 1947 article by Lester Gaba in Women’s Wear Daily, a New York publication, called The Little Traveler, “the smartest shop in Chicago – 40 miles out of town. Here in nine intimate and charming shops, Mrs. Edmund Raftery carries on what she refuses to call a ‘business.’”

Gaba eventually agrees, declaring The Little Traveler is, “Alice in Wonderland with price tags.”

Encouraging other businesses

Raftery also supported and encouraged other businesses to go out on their own, some on Third Street, others outside of it, Emma said.

One was Robin’s Bookshop, opened by Robin Dienst and friend Helen North, a one-room shop inside The Little Traveler, Emma said. By 1938, they outgrew the space and moved Robin’s Bookshop to their home on River Lane, then in 1953, joined Marian Michael on South Third Street in the Charles B. Wells House, 220 S. Third St., Emma said.

Raftery also had encouraged the Forsyth sisters to start a restaurant, and they opened the Mill Race Inn along the Fox River in 1933, Emma said. Raftery helped them advertise it in The Almanack.

“She was very generous,” Emma said. “She was a lady before her time.”

Raftery died April 2, 1953 in her apartment upstairs in The Little Traveler, Emma said.

The Almanack

In another marketing feat, Raftery developed a newsletter called The Little Traveler Almanack, and wrote stories to promote the ambiance of The Little Traveler for shoppers, eventually amassing a mailing list to every state and several countries, Emma said.

The Little Traveler Almanack is still published four times a year by mail and online, featuring upcoming events, sales and new items.

An amazing aspect of Raftery’s development of The Little Traveler was her connections, one to Russian Count George Bennigsen – who traced his lineage back to Catherine the Great – and another connection to a French princess, Emma said.

“They were sending her unique things no one else could get,” Emma said. “We do not know if the connections were through her family at the shipyards or through her father’s business or at the Art Institute in Chicago. We just don’t know, yet.”

Current owner Mike Simon, along with family members and a few investors, bought The Little Traveler in 1971, eventually doubling its size.

Simon acknowledged that it all began with Raftery.

“The Little Traveler was the catalyst for the distinctive shopping district that Geneva has become,” Simon stated in an email. “Kate Raftery was a visionary in her time, and if she were to come back today, she would be amazed and delighted to see what Geneva has evolved into. I think she’d also be pleased to see that her store is still vibrant and growing after 95 years.”