Old Lisbon: Casa Africana

Velvet, wool, ready-to-wear, and an offensive mascot helped this former department store dominate Rua Augusta for over a century.

Shopping along Lisbon’s famous Rua Augusta wasn’t always such a paint-by-numbers process. Where chain stores, restaurants, and fast fashion franchises now reside was once exclusively dedicated to textile vendors after the great earthquake of 1755. Over time, many of those vendors expanded their stock to include ready-to-wear items, making the street a favorite stop for shopaholics for years to come.

Starting in 1872 and spanning over a century, one of the most famous shopping destinations on Rua Augusta was the Casa Africana department store.

It first opened on Rua da Victoria 33 – 37 at the corner of Rua Augusta, a mere three years before the iconic arch marking the entrance to Praça do Comércio was completed in 1875. A few years later, Casa Africana outgrew the space due to its remarkable success, making way for the Grande Hotel Duas Nações, which still owns the space today (above Intimissimi on the ground floor). 

In 1905, the shop moved across the street to Rua Augusta 151 (now occupied by Zara), where it stayed and thrived for almost 100 years. When engineer Hermenegildo Sugusto Blanc was contracted to renovate the space, he remodeled each of the four floors in an “English style” to share a common thread of simplified elegance throughout. Before, many of the floors were independently rented by smaller retailers, and the building was therefore aesthetically disjointed.

Interior of Casa Africana, Ground Floor, 1938. From Século Illustrado. Found in: Restos de Coleccão. To see what the interior looks like today, click here.

The store was famous for its four floors of fine furs, silk, wool, and velvet fabric rolls, fine lace items, a haberdashery, and the latest in ready-to-wear clothing and leather accessories. Nostalgic shoppers still recall the thrill of climbing the central grand staircase seen here.

Outside, the shop boasted an oversized Casa Africana logo, under which hung a sign depicting a Black man in a bellhop uniform carrying an obscene number of parcels.

There was — or, in certain circles, still is — a Portuguese expression with roots in the shop’s signage: “preto da Casa Africana” meant that one was very busy.

By 1925, the shop had officially grown beyond Lisbon. The first new franchise opened where it remains to this day — in Porto on Rua 31 Janeiro, a street that was later split and renamed Rua Sá de Bandeira, 166. Yes, for those interested in checking out the modern take on the brand, you can — in its original digs with a few strategic updates. Guess which…

The other franchise opened in 1956 in the town of Monte de Estoril, at Portugal’s first shopping center, the Centro Comercial do Cruzeiro, which in 2016 was turned over to the Academia das Artes do Estoril (AAE) as their new headquarters.

Lisbon’s famous Casa Africana closed its doors in the late ‘90s, though no available sources could say why. Perhaps the overall branding wasn’t resonating with 20th-century shoppers anymore? Perhaps big brands swallowed up the little guy? Perhaps their grunge selection was lacking? Who knows.

The good news is that you can always try your luck in Porto, but don’t expect old-world grandeur or nostalgic fanfare.

And don’t expect anyone to carry your parcels. You’ve got two hands.

Sources: Lisbon de Antigamente, Restos de Coleccão, Marina Tavares Dias Archive, Lisboa Secreta, Portuguese Studies Center, Lisbon Municipal Archive (AFML)

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