A looking glass into American holidays
There was a time
when every large, medium, and even some small cities had their own department stores. Although some grew to become chains, their flagship locations were often associated with their home communities as indelibly as many sports teams are today.
No trip to Detroit, for instance, would have been complete without a stop at Hudson’s. In Allentown it may have been Hess’s.
In this age of homogenization many cherished traits and idiosyncrasies that define a sense of place have vanished. When I was a child we shopped at nearby Lynn, MA. The city had several department stores, but the biggest, as I remember, was T.W. Rogers. At Christmastime, I insisted that we make a pilgrimage, “because that’s where the ‘real’ Santa Claus held court.” At least, I was pretty sure of it.
The other reason to head to the department stores during the holidays was to check out the display windows. Starting usually about Thanksgiving, or more accurately, the day after, mannequins that spent the rest of the year showing off their latest styles at street level gave way to the yuletide spirit. Each window often depicted a scene from a Christmas book, and, sometimes, the scenes were original and designed specifically for the store. For us as children, Lynn may have been fine for shopping but, for the window displays we headed to Boston. The two big stores – sitting right across Summer Street from each other – were Filene’s and Jordan Marsh (Jordan’s, to the locals). They were both decked out with competing window displays. Jordan’s had the edge in celebrating, though, as one floor of the multi-story building was given over to a winter wonderland, called “Enchanted Village.” Parents, with kids in tow, would wend their way through a Brigadoon-like town, filled with mechanical elves working in the toy shops, reindeer flying over rooftops, carolers belting out tunes in front of snow-capped houses, and always a grandfather rocking in his chair, the dog by his side with his tail wagging underneath the moving rocker and always skirting out from under the rocker just in time. The whole village disappeared right after New Year’s Day, just as fast as it came.
New York, of course, had many department stores. Probably the most celebrated were Macy’s – advertised as the “World’s Largest” – and Gimbels (“Select, don’t settle”). Although seen as New York stores, neither actually started there. Rowland Hussy Macy opened his first dry goods establishment on Nantucket, where the Macy family name is still known today. When that didn’t work, he moved to the mainland and opened a department store in Haverhill, MA. In fact, while there, the store sponsored a parade through the city. That one, however, was not held on Thanksgiving, as Macy’s in New York does today, but rather on the 4th of July, in 1854. Macy moved his operation to New York four years later. Gimbel’s – or Gimbel Brothers – began in Vincennes, IN, moved to Danville, IL, then on to Milwaukee and Philadelphia. When the New York store opened, it immediately became the flagship of the operation, and it set the stage for probably the most well-known department store rivalry. The saying, “Would Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?” became part of the language.
Both stores had holiday traditions that were recognized in Hollywood. The 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street, forever solidified the comparisons between the two stores. The storyline centers on the department store Santa at Macy’s who claimed to be the real Kris Kringle and did not play the traditional role that the store management hoped for. At one point he even tells the mother of a child on his lap that she should go to Gimbel’s to buy a particular toy because the price was better there. Macy’s, to this day, decorates its windows during December, often using the movie as its theme. The store also runs its nationally televised Thanksgiving parade to kick off the season. A version of that Thanksgiving event, incidentally, began earlier at Gimbel’s at its Philadelphia store. Gimbel’s, by the way, was also the name of the department store featured in the 2003 movie, Elf.
Another silver screen account of a department store holiday takes place in Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. The movie begins as Ralphie, the movie’s hero, stares at a Red Ryder B.B. gun in the display window at Higbee’s. Shepherd, as narrator and adult Ralphie, describes the scene. “Higbee’s corner window was traditionally a high water mark of the pre-Christmas season. First nighters, packed earmuff to earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a tingling display of mechanized electronic joy.” Later in the movie Ralphie and his younger brother climb a mountain, built inside the store, to see Santa Claus, who is sitting on top. After speaking to him, the boys were pushed down a long slide. For several years after the movie’s release the real Higbee’s, in Cleveland, where the scene was filmed, featured the same slide every December. In the book from which the movie was made the store was Goldblatt’s in the town of Hohman, a thinly veiled Hammond, IN, which, indeed, had a Goldblatts’ Department store in its main shopping district – Hohman Avenue.
Two giants in the department store world were Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia and Marshall Field’s of Chicago. Although Wannamaker’s no longer exists as a separate entity its successor, to this day, features a holiday display on the first floor. With the famous Wannamaker Organ as a centerpiece, today’s version of the Wannamaker Light Show uses 34,500 LED lights on the “Magic Christmas Tree, alone.” The rest of the extravaganza has an additional 65,000 lights. Making appearances several times a day are two bears, four Frosty the Snowmen, eight reindeer, 50 snowflakes, toy soldiers, ballerinas, and a train. Store founder, Ill. John Wannamaker, 33°, incidentally, was a member of the Scottish Rite, joining Kilwinning Rose Croix Chapter in 1912.
In Chicago, Marshall Field’s decked out its windows to the delight of passersby. The tradition was started in 1897 by a pioneer in window design, Arthur Fraiser. A giant tree was also placed in the Walnut Room, and the main lobby, with its Tiffany mosaic dome, was decked out from top to bottom. A character, named Uncle Mistletoe, was developed as a fictional store spokesman, and his likeness adorned the top of the tree. The philosophy was to “give the kids what they want.”
Times change and shopping habits evolve. Some of the stores live on under different corporate banners, but many are gone, taking their particular slants on the holiday season with them. Downtown shopping districts withered under the onslaught of the suburban mall and later by lifestyle centers. As a footnote, one tradition from my childhood had a re-birth in the last few years. When Boston’s Jordan Marsh store was enveloped – and made much smaller – by another chain, its Enchanted Village was in jeopardy. For a short time the city took over the display, with all its figurines originally carved by a Bavarian toy maker, and moved it to a large tent in front of the city hall. A lack of funding marked its demise in 2006. Three years later the various pieces were put up for auction. Instead of being scattered throughout the world, though, a local furniture company – appropriately named “Jordan’s” stepped in and salvaged this important piece of Americana. The owner said he “was thrilled to be able to offer a wonderful New England tradition as a great way to ring in the season.” Although a little smaller – from 28 original vignettes, down to 18 – Enchanted Village lives on, albeit, at a different Jordan’s. The furniture store, despite the similar name, has no connection to the original Jordan Marsh store, but the coincidence is not lost on the more than 200,000 guests who visited the village last year as adults treated their children and grandchildren – and perhaps, their great-grandchildren – to a little piece of their past.