Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reigning Violets

Treasure chest
Once upon a time that shopping bag was new and contained a treasure. It doesn't matter what it held— a scarf, a handkerchief, a pair of gloves or stockings— it was a treasure because it meant you had been shopping at Bonwit Teller.

Nothing said "good taste" in Cleveland as much as Bonwit's. The local department and specialty stores could try and had their fans, but Bonwit Teller also said "New York City". At 550 miles away (most of it endless stretches on the Pennsylvania Turnpike), we didn't get to New York often. In Bonwit's I could pretend I was there.

Bonwit's is to Holly's right

The backstory: The New York City Bonwit's was founded in 1895 by Paul Bonwit. The first store was located on 18th and Sixth as part of the fashionable "Ladies' Mile" streets of shops. Two years later Edmund Teller became a partner. Bonwit Teller specialized in high-end women's apparel and was known for providing its workers with good salaries. Bonwit's moved uptown over the years, and by 1930 was at 56th and Fifth Avenue. That location (next door to Tiffany's) remained the flagship until Bonwit's finally closed.

Bonwit Teller began opening small branches in 1934, with a "seasonal" shop in Palm Beach. Eventually there were 19 branch locations, usually located in exclusive shopping centers of wealthy cities. How Cleveland got one I'll never know, but I'm eternally grateful.

Camp life never looked so good

Although luxurious, Bonwit's was never off-putting. It was the place to go for a good party dress or my sister's trousseau.  They sold little bibelots for the home but not much else in the way of "hard goods". From the scent of freshly sprayed perfume at the front door it was fashionfashionfashion.

I recall spending a lot of time there as a fifth wheel on family shopping trips. Bored, I would pick up loose pins from the carpet in the fitting room. I once found a Hattie Carnegie label and sewed it into my black watch plaid cotton dress. The label ran when my mother washed the dress. I guess you didn't wash your Hattie Carnegie.

Bonwit's, Cleveland, Ohio

The Cleveland store was four selling floors. Although there were elevators I preferred to take the stairs. They were carpeted in red plush with a large oil painting on each landing. It was like visiting a private museum. I was sure the paintings were spectacularly valuable.

I met my friend Barbara almost 60 years ago when she was working in Bonwit's "deb shop" and I was snooping around. We discovered we were both about to start the same art school that fall.

After years of begging for one, I finally got a Lanz dress (blue cotton dimity print) and from the Bonwit's in Boston— a spectacular location in a former mansion. I have never forgotten either one.

The Lanz dress
And where it came from

Although a poor church mouse of a working girl-to-be, I bought the dress I wore on all my first-job interviews at Bonwit's. With even less money as a working girl in New York, I wouldn't dare go into the fancy stores like Saks and Bergdorf's for fear they would sniff me out, but somehow still felt welcome in Bonwit's.

As for the violets, they had been around for a while in a fusty, old fashioned way. Bonwit's premier illustrator in the 1950s was Jay Hyde Crawford. Fashion illustration was then an important element in advertising and editorial (alas no longer). In 25 minutes he "updated" Bonwit's violets in a free-form, modern way, and they became synonymous with the store. Bonwit's violets appeared not only on bags and hat boxes but bloomed on everything from playing cards to umbrellas. I'm hard pressed to think of any other store with a mascot like those violets.

For April showers...

The history of Bonwit Teller is fraught with economic downturns and subsequent saves. Alas the bell tolled its last in 1990 when a greatly diminished Bonwit's shut its doors for good. By that time it had been relegated to a small presence on the 57th street side. The main building had been bought and demolished by a brash young developer making his name in New York City real estate. Today Trump Tower stands where Bonwit's used to hold court.

A Trump card like no other


  1. Great post! I remember the Boston store well, even though the only thing I shopped for there was makeup. My mother used a toiletry bag from Bonwit's with the trademark violets on it, and I thought it was the prettiest thing ever.

    When I moved to Chicago, they had a branch on Michigan Avenue in the base of the John Hancock tower, and I vividly remember the summer I stalked every Clinique GWP through every department store in the city--Carson Pirie Scott, I. Magnin, Marshall Field, Lord & Taylor, Saks, Neiman Marcus and of course, Bonwit Teller. Talk about the good old days!

    1. And to think we took those "good old days" for granted! Are there any stores left that give you 1/10 of that genteel department store experience? Would Nordstrom be one?

  2. I shopped at the Boston Bonwits once, just before it closed. I bought a taupe hat with a small veil and a silk flower, just like the one's Princess Diana was wearing. I accidently left it the very same day at Fanuiel Hall where I went for dinner that night. I still think about it. My mother told me a few days ago that her beautiful frothy chiffon prom dress from 1953 was bought at Sterns in Boston. She then reminisced about what a beautiful store it was on Tremont St. She said she could still see the interior first floor - cosmetics directly in front and to the left, the glove department. It was an wonderful genteel place too. Around the corner was Filenes, Jordan Marsh and Gilcrest. I was lucky to be in on the tail end of great department store shopping. I would say the heydey ended in around 1980. Those were the days.

    1. The closest (and last remaining outpost) of the great American department store tradition seems to be Nordstrom. Even they have cut back on some amenities (live piano music wafting through the store). I often walk through to drink in the atmosphere or have a meal in the cafe, but rarely to shop!