Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shopping Trip Down Memory Lane

Warning: This is an exercise in nostalgia. You may have no knowledge of the lost and nearly forgotten era of the department store. I invite you to experience the thrill of the agora, Cleveland-style. If you do remember department stores fondly, your stores will not be my stores but our stories may be the same. Like Proust and his madelines, the most pungent memories come in little bites, not always full sentences:

> Getting dressed up to go downtown to go shopping. Your mother wore her good clothes and so did you, topped off with your overcoat, hat, mittens, galoshes, and maybe snowpants because the stores were not in a mall, and it was a long way from Higbees on Public Square to Halle's on 12th Street.

> Department store dining rooms. Higbee's Silver Grille had the Special Lunch. It was served on tea party sized dishes in a wooden china cupboard. There would be creamed chicken in a white milk glass casserole shaped like a hen, mashed potatoes and peas. Dessert was something with a sparkler or an ice cream "doll". Her skirt was the ice cream and the little doll torso was wax or plastic (choking hazard!!!). Sometimes there would be models walking around the tables wearing lovely suits and dresses.

> Charge-a-plate. This was a metal plate the size and shape of an army dog tag. It had your mother's name on it and various notches around the perimeter. Each notch represented a department store where your family had an account. The thing fit into an apparatus where the notch for that particular store would correspond. Like a well-used Colt 45, my mother's charge-a-plate had lots of notches.

> Each store had its own delivery van. If it was a large package, you had your purchase "sent". It arrived the next day.

> All purchases were wrapped in tissue AND boxed. The box closed with a gummed paper tape that turned into a handle. Bags were for little things, like greeting cards or socks. You didn't get a box AND a bag.

> Sale racks were not permanent fixtures. There weren't always things "on sale". Sales were held at specified times, the biggest being after Christmas and 4th of July.

> People weren't always shopping. You would go clothes shopping twice a year— fall for school clothes and a winter coat (every other year) and a party dress, spring for summer clothes. If you needed something for a special occasion it threw your father into a tizzy.

> Stores closed at 6 PM, except Thursday night when they were open till 9. Only drug stores were open on Sunday. Department stores did stay open six days a week till 9 from Thanksgiving to Christmas. They never opened at 4AM the day after Thanksgiving.

> You shopped with Miss Alice at Halle's in the children's department. Even though you only saw her twice a year, she always remembered you. Miss Alice probably deserved an Oscar. Miss Alice knew to step away when you and your mother had that fight about the red car coat and the lime green fluffy one.

> Shopping was always shopping. You didn't combine it with a movie or a doctor's appointment. You were never "just looking".

> Christmas time was the exception. You went downtown to visit Santa Claus even if you were Jewish. You saw every store's windows and wished you could have all those toys. You wanted to see the Easter Bunny in the spring too, but your mother drew the line. NB Higbee's and Public Square were used as the location sets for the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story". It takes place in the late 1940s in an unnamed Midwestern city. If you imagine really hard, I am the little girl, third from the left, eyeing the dolls in Higbee's window.

> Your line of march was: Higbee's through lunch, then May Company, Taylor's (for bargains and to cash in the "Eagle Stamp" books), Halle's, across the street to Sterling Lindner then back to Halle's to catch the free bus back down to Public Square and the Rapid Transit home. You had to stand if the bus were crowded. You once reached into a man's overcoat pocket because the flap was half-in-half-out. It was at your eye level and driving you nuts. Your mother was horrified as it looked like you were picking his pocket.

> The last stop would be the Frosty Malt stand in Higbee's basement. If you've never had a Frosty Malt I don't think I can do it justice. Imagine a glass of cold, thick faintly chocolate mush that you kind of ate but mostly drank. I can't describe what malt tastes like, but it's hard to find in anything these days besides beer. The Frosty Malt always left a moustache. It cost 15 cents.

> At this point your mother is fairly dragging you to the train. You are sweating inside your galoshes. It's a good thing your mittens are on a string because they would have been long gone. Somewhere along the way you stopped in the 5 & 10 and got a new paper doll book. You are very happy.


  1. i love this story--- i would only add the occasion of buying " the spring coat" - a thing that simply does not exist anymore. My shopping memories were Wannemakers, Best&Co and McCreeries- all in Manhattan. We would take the double decker bus up fifth avenue to get to Best's.
    SIGH. I guess every big city had that crazy kiddie dessert- i remember they looked like clowns, with the icecream cone at the top of the dish of semi melting icecream as the hat for the clown. Probably cherries for eyes. The amazing thing was the ride on the escalator, usually in the center of the biggest stores- it was like being inside a dollhouse !

  2. I forgot I was terrified of the escalators— not to the point that I wouldn't take them, but I felt relieved I didn't get sucked down into the mechanism when we reached the next floor.

  3. Wonderful story. I have so many memories too.

    Now, Paper Dolls! Do you remember Betsy McCoy? Although they were somewhat stingy with only two outfits each month.

    And my all time star: Katy Keene. You could send in your own designs and sometimes they would publish them. But they never paid anything...!

  4. Lord & Taylor had lunch bar on the 7th floor, a different soup every day, just the soup, and apple pie. The pie came with hard sauce or cheese. It was delicious.

  5. Of course you mean "Betsy McCall", right? I'm thinking maybe I should do something on paper dolls. If you loved fashion at an early age you were probably crazy about paper dolls. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. And sewing for Barbie (that twit with the perfect figure). I filled a Lord & Taylor coat box (with the red rose on it) with clothes for a '61 Barbie for a 9 year old cousin. There were at least 60 outfits, each pattern was used multiple times for every fabric piece from gingham to satin and silk, fur and everything else I could get my hands on... Wonder where those clothes are now!

  7. Michelle, this is so much fun to read. I just want to sit with you and listen to all your stories! I know I missed out on most of this but I still love eating at the Nordstrom's Cafe and I haven't been through London once without spending an afternoon shopping in Harrods with a pause for tea in the Georgian Tea Room. I also try to dress up for serious shopping excursions (and ALWAYS when I travel- heels are probably easier to remove than any other shoe, save for flip flops...)
    And I loved my paper dolls and made clothes for my barbies!
    I just love everything you write!