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When Downtown Department Stores Spelled Christmas

Generations of New Englanders remember fondly the glorious downtown department stores at Christmas. Those great retail palaces brought magic to the holidays with stunning window displays, conversations on Santa’s lap and walk-through enchanted villages.

Christmas was a carnival of color and light and motion at the great department stores, and the holiday season brought out the best in them. They were at once arbiters of quality and fashion, makers of dreams, vibrant elements of city life and landmark consumer paradises. A trip to a department store often marked a milestone. There we bought a back-to-school outfit, a wedding dress, a new suit for the first job.  And at Christmas, the trip to the downtown department store meant – well, Christmas.

Jordan Marsh nativity scene mainDuring the heyday of Downtown Crossing in Boston, carolers serenaded shoppers atop the Filene’s marquee, a giant manger scene loomed above Summer Street at Jordan Marsh and three large gold bells swayed with the Christmas music. A Boston newspaper reporter in 1956 waxed elegiac about the scene: “Gay Christmas music on the streets and in the stores added to the spirit and helped brighten the mood for the intrepid shoppers,” he wrote. “Store windows, a kaleidoscope of color, added to the gay splashes of varied hues on Christmas-wrapped bundles. Everything was bright and cheerful and sparkled in the sun.”

Under the Shepard’s Clock

It was the same on Congress Street in Portland, where Porteous boasted ‘lavish and delightful’ Christmas decorations of colored lights, thousands of yards of greenest evergreen and ‘truly fascinating show windows.’ In Hartford, a Christmas village with historic Connecticut buildings built to scale rested atop G. Fox’s marquee, and for several years the store windows featured Christmas paintings from the Wadsworth Athenaeum. The three great g. fox catalogProvidence stores on Westminster Street – Shepard’s, Cherry & Webb and Gladdings – decked themselves out for the holiday, and if you got lost you waited for your parents under the tall, neon-lit Shepard’s clock.

Internet sites are filled with blogs and websites devoted to department store history. eBay does a brisk business selling branded items from favorite stores. Books have been written about them: Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premier Department Store, G. Fox & Co.: Where Connecticut Shopped and Filene’s: Boston’s Great Specialty Store. The Connecticut Historical Society not only houses the Remembering G. Fox & Co. archives, it hosts G. Fox talks that draw attendees dressed in G. Fox items (the store closed in 1993). Elizabeth Abbe, who presents the talks, compares the G. Fox & Co. fans to the cult following of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Today, the great Providence Shepard’s store – once the country’s largest — is used by the University of Rhode Island. The Porteous flagship store on Congress Street is the Maine College of Art. Sage-Allen in Hartford was converted to luxury apartments. Jordan Marsh’s Enchanted Village is now at a Jordan Furniture store in Avon. What remain as department stores are invariably Macy’s.

A $35 Teddy Bear

The great old department stores were places where you brought your best self and hoped to find something even better – the wondrous toy, the fantastic dress, the wild extravagance you just had to have. In 1965, a 19-year-old Hartford Courant employee spent her entire Christmas bonus on a Stieff teddy bear.  “I believe he cost $35,” she posted in The Department Store Museum blog. “That was outrageous for a 19 yr old to spend on a Teddy Bear. Oh my goodness I have so many great memories.”

For roughly 50 years, from the 1920s to the 1970s, downtown department stores transported customers from their everyday cares. They were places with vast assortments of merchandise that put flesh on our admittedly materialistic dreams. The stores sent buyers all over the world to bring back wares that would wow customers. Filene’s opened a Paris office in 1910, which established its reputation as a fashion authority and stocked its high-end French Shop.

That was just one of many at Filene’s flagship store, designed by the great Daniel Burnham. There was ‘Young Breed,’ ‘Varsity Shop’ and ‘Junior Gown Shop.’ There was a special repair department, back when broken merchandise was repaired rather than replaced. Filene’s was known for its Lilly Pulitzer clothes, Kimberly knits, its ski shop, its cruise shop, its Oxford shop and its fine men’s clothing. And the basement! Filene’s paid 10 cents on the dollar for leftover merchandise from stores like I. Magnin. Bargain hunters were rewarded with the thrill of the shopping hunt with end-of-season luxury goods at a fraction of their original prices — with labels and original price tags still intact.

Items purchased at the great department stores sometimes took on special significance.  Such was the case of a handkerchief from R. H. Stearns, a 10-story emporium that offered simple elegance to little old ladies from Beacon Hill.

A woman told the Department Store Museum that she had met a handsome sailor on the Boston Common in 1958. “We went for a walk on Tremont St. I was having a sneezing attack from Hay Fever. My sailor friend went into RH Sterns and purchased a fancy lace hankie for me. I kept the hankie for over 50 years. We rediscovered each other in 2011 and just married this past April 2012. I gave him back the hankie. He couldn’t believe I kept it all these years. The hankie is still in good shape and just as beautiful as the day he gave it to me.”

Customer Is Always Right

You were treated like royalty in those great retail palaces, but perhaps no store treated customers better than G. Fox. Its motto: The customer is always right.

Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the beloved matriarch who presided over G. Fox’s glory years, would not allow a customer to go away unhappy. The hallmark of G. Fox since her grandfather founded it in 1847 was free home delivery –- first by wheelbarrow, then by horse-drawn carriage, and finally by automobile and truck. In 1947, G. Fox celebrated its centennial by delivering packages by helicopter. Recalled one G. Fox employee, “The policy was if a customer wanted to return a spool of thread, the great G. Fox fleet would pick up the thread.”

Auerbach was so anxious to please customers that on Christmas Eve she had a small staff and drivers on standby until midnight for desperate parents who still needed a Christmas gift.

As far back as 1917, Hartford had such an emotional attachment to G. Fox that when the five-story store burned down, 98 percent of the customers still paid their bills though all customer records had been destroyed. The owners paid employees their salaries while the new store was built and Hartford merchants let G. Fox sell its goods in their storefronts.

Good employers

Raymond's, Boston (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Raymond’s, Boston (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

The great department stores treated their employees well, with employee cafeterias, on-site nurses, paid vacations and sick days and benefits. Auerbach promoted minority employees at G. Fox well before it was the norm. Edward Filene encouraged the company’s union and instituted profit-sharing. His brother Lincoln stood at the door on Christmas Eve and shook the hand of every Filene’s employee.

As a result, department store employees could be fiercely loyal. A Cherry & Webb employee drowned during the Hurricane of 1938 while trying to rescue the store’s furs in the Providence store’s basement.

Lowell’s Bon Marche in 1938 had 62 employees who were 10-year veterans of the store. “I loved, loved, loved working for this store,” wrote one Jordan Marsh employee.

A G. Fox employee tells of his late mother who retired from G. Fox, having won many customer service awards. She was buried wearing the G. Fox name badge she was so proud of.

Sensory delights

Shopping filled the senses at the great downtown department stores: the ring of the bell, the smell of the city, the marble, mahogany and brass, merchandise displayed in elegant wooden and glass cases.

It was a special treat for children to dine in elegant department store restaurants, like the Venetian Tea Room at Read’s in Bridgeport or the Top o’ the Town Restaurant at Forbes & Wallace in Springfield. Sunday attire and proper manners were required.

Each department store had a signature food item: chicken croquettes were a favorite at Shepard’s in Providence, almond macaroons at Gilchrist’s in Boston. Sage-Allen in Springfield smelled like sticky buns, so spicy they almost burned the tongue. The aroma from the bakery wafted up the escalators, drawing customers into the basement. Date nut bread sandwiches with cream cheese were a favorite at G. Fox. And Jordan Marsh’s blueberry muffins were a required treat at the end of shopping trips to Boston. Since the bakery closed in the early 1990s, baker John Pupek opened the Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffin Co. in Brockton, which sells the muffins at Macy’s in Portland.

Rise and fall

With roots in 18th- and 19th-century dry goods stores, the department stores flourished as New England flourished. For a time, several of the country’s largest department stores were in New England’s cities.

Gladdings, founded by Providence merchant Benjamin Thurber in 1766, was the oldest, and its bunch of grapes insignia was the longest continuously used trade sign in American history. Yankee merchants also founded Jordan Marsh and R. H. Stearns: Jordan Marsh in 1841 by Eben Jordan, and the eponymous R. H. Stearns in 1848.

R.H.White's, Boston (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

R.H.White’s, Boston (Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Many department stores had immigrant roots. Gerson Fox, who opened G. Fox in 1847, was German Jewish, as was William Filene, who founded his namesake business in 1881. Forbes & Wallace founder Andrew Wallace was born in Scotland, and Worcester’s Denholm & McKay founder William Denholm was a native of Dundee.

The rise and fall of Bon Marche in Lowell, Mass., was typical of the downtown department store. Lowell native Frederic Mitchell opened his first store on Merrimack Street in 1878, displaying merchandise on draped packing cases so the millworkers would eye it as they passed by. On the day the ghost walked – payday – the millworkers would flock to Bon Marche to buy the silverware or dresses or cloth.

During the world wars, Lowell’s mills churned out munitions and textiles to clothe the troops. During World War I, Bon Marche collected peach pits for gas masks; during both world wars, it sold war bonds and stamps. After World War II, it went back to its main marketing proposition: Bon Marche offered deals that couldn’t be beat and rock bottom prices. There was even a big rock sticking out of the basement floor, a glacial erratic too large to remove during construction.

When Lowell struggled, so did Bon Marche. By 1976, Bon Marche was a Jordan Marsh; by the 1990s, the building was empty.

Perhaps the high water mark for downtown department stores was 1956, the last year Downtown Crossing had seven department stores at Christmas: R.H. White, Gilchrist’s, R.H. Stearn’s, Raymond’s, Kennedy’s Jordan Marsh and Filene’s.

It would be the last Christmas for R.H. White’s, the first victim of the middle-class flight to the suburbs.

Then after 100 years in business, Raymond’s declared bankruptcy in 1972, killing off its spokesman, the swamp Yankee Uncle Eph.

Closing in 1976 was Gilchrist’s, one of the big three in Downtown Crossing with Jordan’s and Filene’s, 134 years after it opened.

R. H. Stearns, which had towered over Boston Common in a landmark building for seven decades, shut its doors in 1978.

Kennedy’s closed in the early 1980s, having grown from a small men’s store in 1892 to a fixture of New England retailing.

Jordan Marsh became a Macy’s in 1996.

And Filene’s, the last to give up the ghost, became a Macy’s in 2006.

Memories of the great old department stores live on, though, in tissue-wrapped ornaments tucked away in Steiger’s boxes or childhood Santa photos from Sage-Allen.

A typical sentiment expressed on the Forgotten New England site: “To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent.”

A Springfield resident posted on the Department Store Museum site that nothing could replace her beloved Forbes and Wallace. “My mother and I shopped that store ‘til the bitter end of July of 1976. Broken Hearted over the tearing down of that retail mecca! Nothing can replace my beloved Forbes and Steigers stores! Nor the magic of then-downtown Springfield, Mass!”

How we miss them.

Special thanks to the Department Store Museum and Shopping Days in Retro Boston for this story.

26 comments

  1. Cheryl Sheley-Burlingham

    my sister worked at Steigers for years, miss that store :(

  2. Michelle Wilkins Cook

    Miss these stores and what they did for downtown.

  3. Thelma Barnes

    Sorely, sorely miss those years.

  4. Claire Murphy Buck

    Porteous, Portland had elevator operators!

  5. Rosa Santos

    Miss those stores , not the same

  6. Brenda McCallum

    Christmas Tradition: Dress up & go to Enchanted Village @ Jordan Marsh, get pics w Santa, enjoy their blueberry muffins then browse Filene

  7. Gloria Gombar

    Was Read’s in Hartford? In the 1980′s I worked at Read’s in Southbury, Ct but the main store was in Bridgeport, CT.

  8. Brenda McCallum

    store window display & Filene’s tolling of the bells. Days gone by..

  9. New England Historical Society

    Whoops, we meant to put Read’s in Bridgeport! G. Fox, Steiger’s and Sage-Allen were the Big 3 in Hartford.

  10. Greg White

    My parents remember the Jordan Marsh muffins.

  11. Marilyn Callan

    I don’t remember Steiger’s ever being in Hartford, I remember G. Fox, Sage-Allen and Korvetts.

  12. Marilyn Callan

    Steiger’s was out of Springfield I thought.

  13. Molly Landrigan

    I remember Christmas shopping in Boston. The streets were so crowded they had mounted policemen on beautiful horses to maintain crowd control. Remember?

  14. Bunnie Laine Lubs

    Sage-Allen’s in Old Saybrook was my first job at Christmas in gift wrap! Great memories!

  15. Nina Allbert

    In Nashville, it was the beautiful windows of Cain Sloan, and the Nativity Scene in Centennial Park set up by Harvey’s. A trip to downtown for shopping was an event, and we dressed up to go. Far more civilized than than the riots created by an incited mob mentality to get THE bargain.

  16. Elizabeth Waite

    It brings back such wonderful memories!

  17. Hal-Phyllis Mambuca Landwehr

    People dressed up to go places, even shopping! It was an elegant time. Going in to town on the train was a special event back then! It is a shame it has all changed. I saw on the news a woman was excited that she got a 100 PC. Kitchen something for $10. . She thought it was at bargain. It looked cheap to me. Now a bargain was a cashmere sweater for $10 in Filene’s or Jordan’s Basement!!!!

  18. David Harris

    Ninth floor Santa’s village.ever Christmas

  19. Kimberlyn J. Pavlak Green

    Steiger’s was in Springfield. I worked there as a teenager. Wonderful memories : )

  20. Ann Boley Parker

    Now the choices are Macy’s, Macy’s, and (did I mention ?) Macy’s!

  21. Ellen Johnson Will

    I remember going to G Fox and thinking it was the best day ever!

  22. George Chapman

    Worked at JM a few months post college in the mid 50s. Loved it and always loved the store. . .and the annex!

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