You just never know what's going to pop up on this blog...and I have been busy lately writing up some holiday memories from my childhood for my girls to enjoy this Christmas. While it's not yet Thanksgiving, I still thought it appropriate to share one of the memories that used to begin around Thanksgiving and extend through Christmas. So here goes....commercialism at it's height!
These days I hate to
shop…. and only do it when I have to. But I remember when I used to love shopping during the holidays when I
was growing up in the '50s and '60s. My mom would pack up my brother and me and head for downtown Seattle to shop several times between
Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. Seattle’s retail atmosphere was festive,
with the crowds, music piped into the streets and playing in the
background, and Salvation Army bells ringing. Seattle had some enormous, beautiful
department stores like the Bon Marche (started 1890), Frederick and Nelson
(started 1891), Nordstroms (started 1901), Rhodes (started 1907) and JC Penney
(started in Wyoming in 1902).
Each of these downtown stores took up a whole
city block, the largest being Frederick and Nelson, standing ten stories high after completing a remodel to it's existing five story building in 1949. Each store had display windows on
their main floors facing the street sidewalks, with doors every so often
intersecting the windows.
It was exiting to anticipate a shopping trip, getting dressed up and riding downtown. Once my mom had negotiated Seattle traffic she
always had a difficult time finding a place to park, although she had her
favorite lots close enough to walk to when we were finished and carrying the
shopping bags, but far enough away to be a bit cheaper.
thing we would do was walk by the lavish window displays of the stores we were going
to. This was when window display was true art. During the Thanksgiving holiday a window might
hold a scene from an old-fashioned kitchen with family members,
the turkey and a dog, or during the Christmas season another window would have a family
(mannequins) grouped in a living room around their Christmas tree. The ‘people’
had moving parts and I was just enchanted. The scenes were always so warm and charming,
and it’s amazing now to think of the time and effort the stores put into these
displays. There were many windows along the streets, and most had product
displays, but at holiday time a few would be devoted just to entertaining the
crowds. The outsides of these store buildings were usually decorated in light shows year after year, and were wonderful to look at too.
At Fredericks Santa would always be in a bottom corner window greeting
children in December. It became a Seattle custom to have your child’s photo taken with
Santa in that window and I still have mine. Mom, Joe and I would walk slowly
past the windows for a long time just enjoying the holiday city atmosphere, the
piped music and the window scenes.
stores! They were incredible. Fredericks had door men in uniforms, hats
and gloves outside each door to greet you and to open the double glass doors to warmth, beauty
and delicious smells within. The Salvation Army bell ringer outside each door was dressed as Santa Claus, which gave an added holiday cheer as we entered and put a few coins in their hanging red pot. I developed a love of big department stores back
then that stays with me to this day. It was thrilling to enter those stores, with their lavish bright and beautiful store
decorations that changed each year to different colors and themes. I
remember fresh evergreen swags and wreaths probably 3 feet high and across. Sparkling
silver bells, plump red velvet bows, different sizes of royal blue Christmas
ornaments hanging on ribbons and counter sized decorated Christmas trees. There were displays of all manner of wonderful goods. The smells of warm
nuts, fresh candy, perfumes and fresh evergreens permeated everywhere. The street
floor at Fredericks had soaring, giant marble pillars, or at least giant to a child, shiny black
and white tile floors, and huge gorgeous gold and crystal chandeliers hanging
from a ceiling soaring impossibly high over our heads.
The perfume counters
with glamorous ladies offering good-smelling liquids in gorgeous bottles,
nestled in silk or velvet lined boxes always held an awestruck appeal for me. Mom
would often let me try a little on the inside of my wrist, and I would smell it
as we walked around. Holiday shoppers were pampered with beautiful products, good food and customer service, and the stores were full of all things Christmas.
Each store had
several dining choices, where you could go to have lunch or tea and take a
break from your shopping. At Fredericks there was a tea room on the 10th
floor for ladies as well as a men’s grill and a separate buffet. In the
basement they offered the Paul Bunyon Room which was a good choice for families
At the Bon Marche, the 6th floor offered the Cascade
Room fine dining, the Jet Room, a men’s grill, and the Sky Terrace along with the Crystal Tea Room on another floor.
a cafeteria in their basement as well as a tea room on the mezzanine floor,
which actually held an Aeolian Organ played for the ladies entertainment, while Nordstroms
still has its famous Grill Restaurant today. It was quite the tradition in those days
to meet your lady friends downtown for lunch at the Bon or Fredericks.
Occasionally mom would take me to lunch in a tea room when I grew older, but it
was more common that we all had lunch at a soda counter on a lower floor. That
was really fun too, as we usually got a milkshake. Sometimes we would visit the
candy and nut counters. The nuts were all salted and baked, and lying in the warmth
of an artificial light, giving off delicious aromas. Once in a while mom would
buy a few cashews for me (my favorite) and the lady would hand them to me over
the counter in a slim white paper bag. I would put the bag in my coat pocket, and as we
walked around I would slip my hand in and pop a warm cashew into my mouth and slowly
savor it. That was the best treat ever!
and Nelson was the most expensive of the stores we visited. It was ten full
stories, each a city block size, filled with everything imaginable, and with a full
basement beneath. Every floor was accessed by escalators, fascinating to
children, or elevators manned with uniformed operators. They would sit on a
little stool by the controls while waiting for customers, and then stand to
operate the elevator to your desired location. They were generally very friendly
to children. I was always fascinated that there was a ‘mezzanine level’ between
the first and second floors, and tried to imagine how they could fit that
in.Here is a sample of the products
offered by Frederick and Nelson on their various floors in the 1950's:
Floor- Jewelry, cosmetics, women’s accessories, luggage, stationary, candy,
party place, smoke shop and men’s store.
Floor- Shoes, lingerie and underwear, women’s sportswear and coats, millinery
Floor- Designer Boutique, millinery salon, evening shop (formal wear), bridal,
fur salon and maternity.
Floor-Infant, toddler and children’s shops, high school shop, children’s hair
styling, hobby shop, toys, portraits, books, and Mr. Foster Travel Service.
Floor-Beauty Salon, china, art wares, glassware, The Continental Crystal Room,
fine paintings, bar accessories, lamps, bridal registry, silver and flatware.
Floor-Televisions and sound equipment, furniture, Studio of Interior Design,
Home Planning Bureau and The Old World Shop.
Floor-Housewares, Gourmet Galley, appliances, hardware, paint and wallpaper,
the garden shop, the Little Gallery, the Exhibition Hall and the various
Floor- Credit office and customer service. Free gift wrapping during the holidays.
Bunyon Room and the budget floor.
had a grand total of 746,000 sq. ft. of retail space. The idea of course was
one-stop shopping for anything and everything an urban dweller might need or
want. No need to visit any other stores!
shopped the upper floors of Fredericks. She would always head downstairs to the
‘Bargain Basement’ to find gifts and clothes. Most of the basement of this store was devoted
to budget items, cheaper discounted goods, and items the store needed to clear
out, from furniture to clothes to housewares. I
remember one particular night, when my mother wanted to attend a sale in the
Bargain Basement at Fredericks. She talked my dad into going and helping her,
as they were looking to buy a set of four matching green sleeping bags, one for
each of us for Christmas. We all went, and joined the huge crowd of people
waiting for the sale to begin. They held everyone back until the designated
time, and then turned us loose. I remember being surrounded by a pressing crowd
of people around a table piled high with various colored sleeping bags. We couldn’t even get
close to the table, so my dad shoved and pushed his way in and grabbed for a green sleeping
bag. One by one, he tossed them right over the heads of the crowd to my mom waiting
in the back to catch them. It worked, and we did go home with four of the desired green sleeping
bags. One thing about it, those stores sold good quality items. Even the
discounted goods were very high quality. We used those sleeping bags in our summer camping trips for years, and I used them for my kids as well.
On our December shopping trips, mom would shop at the various department stores depending on what she was looking for. I remember her buying dishes and kitchen things at the Bon Marche as well as clothes. Shoes were purchased at Nordstroms and family underwear at JC Penney which tended to be more on the moderately priced scale.
place of interest to me in the department stores were the bathrooms. They were
absolutely over-the-top lavish.In the Bon Marche I
particularly remember the ladies restroom on the 2nd floor. It has rightly been called "the mecca of all ladies bathrooms in Seattle" by the Seattle Times. It was
enormous, with a large waiting/lounge room as large as any room in my house, before you even went into the
bathroom area, all decorated in a striking rose pink. A quote from the Seattle Times described this room accurately: "the rose-hued walls enveloped visitors, drawing them into the high-ceiling powder-lounge area and the mirrored walls, dressing-room lights and bathroom stalls the size of walk in closets, lent themselves to a feeling of opulence." There was a very large round seat
in the center of the powder room, and by large I mean that 40-50 women could sit on it all at one time if they were sitting right next to each other. It was upholstered in pink silk and satin pleats and it had a
tall round upholstered tower in the center of it that women could lean
back against. At the top of the tower was a fresh flower bouquet made up of hundreds of flowers and greens that
seemed to lean out on all sides right over the women resting on the seat. I remember
staring at that sight for a long time while my mother used the bathroom area. There
were seats and mirrors lining the walls of the powder room, with hair brushes
and perfumes for use by the store’s patrons, although I never saw anyone using them. A few years ago my brother and I
went on the ‘Seattle Underground Tour’. While walking along wooden planks laid
over the dirt under the downtown area of Seattle, I spotted something familiar lying
lopsided in a corner in the dirt. I gasped in dismay as I recognized that same
pink satin seating bench from the bathroom at the Bon Marche. I mentioned it to
my tour leader who seemed remarkably unconcerned. He said that the Bon remodeled the bathrooms in 2002 to a more modern styling. No one knew what to do with the 1940’s bench, but no
one wanted to be caught throwing it away. So…it was discarded, joining the other
junk laying around under Seattle. What an inglorious end to such magnificence!
and Nelson was the store that originally created the ‘Frango Mints’, which are a delicious
chocolate candy with a creamy, chocolaty mint flavor. They were made in the Fredericks
kitchen, housed on the 10th floor of the store.
Kitchen workers in 1920
Dad usually got us one
box of Frango Mints to enjoy at Christmastime, as they were an expensive treat. As times changed, in 1992
Frederick and Nelson finally went bankrupt and closed their doors forever, but the
Bon Marche bought the rights to the Frango Mints franchise and continued the
tradition. Then in 2005 Macys bought out the Bon Marche and they too ceased to exist. Frango Mints were one thing Macys kept from the old department
store. They bought the rights to these wonderful candies and continue to sell
them today. You can buy them in the original flavor, or in several others that
Macys has developed.
The era of
the big, grand dame department stores has gradually
vanished into memory, leaving first the shopping malls of the '60s, then today strip malls, big box stores and web shopping in their place. Only
Nordstroms, of the original stores, alone remains in downtown Seattle. Some days I mourn over the lost beauty, and grandeur of the stately department stores of the past that will never again be
available to dazzle young girls and serve tea to the ladies. Jennie
I have been reading a fun book entitled 'The Magic Apple Tree' by Susan Hill. It chronicles a year of seasons in rural England in the 1980's. I have been enjoying this book all year, as I have read her descriptions of each season while delighting in our own. I just finished her last section, which was Autumn. She describes Fall cooking, canning and preserving, and I was struck how pleasant, warm and old-fashioned her ways were even as recently as the 1980's. Susan Hill preserved a lot! and used it all and gave some away. She knew the secrets of using what was free and at hand. I thought I would quote a bit out of the book to show you what I mean.
"In the kitchen, autumn is my favourite season, because it is preserving time-jams and jellies, chutneys and pickles, fruit butters and cheeses, and the whole, glorious session rounded off with the making of the mincemeat....We make savoury jellies, and the base of them all is plain, apple jelly. First chop your apples, (they were all freely given in her village) peel, core, pips and all. This takes ages, but like the chopping of ingredients for chutney it is a soothing task. Put this into a preserving pan with one pint of water to every 2 lbs of apples, and simmer till soft. Stir and press with a wooden spoon often. Preserve-making takes up whole days, with bouts of hard work, and minutes of stirring gently, scattered over long periods of waiting, during which I read a book that doesn't mind being broken into every so often, or write a few letters, or go out to pick some ripe elderberries from the tree on the other side of our garden, for tomorrow. And friends drop in for cups of tea and wasps are slaughtered and the telephone is answered, and I go outside, just to stand in the sunshine and look about. It is all very pleasant.
When the apple pulp is ready, it goes into that wonderful contraption, the jelly bag. I hang this on a stout hook from the beam over the fireplace and put a giant saucepan underneath it. This will drip away for a good twenty-four hours. During preserving week, it becomes a friendly, familiar sight, full of various fruit pulps. (When the apple juice is ready) it is measured and put into the preserving pan, with 1 lb of sugar for every pint, and then two tablespoonsful of lemon juice plus whatever herbs I am using are added. You can make fresh basil, marjoram, thyme, mint, sage or tarragon jelly, adding half a dozen or so sprigs, freshly picked from the garden."
When it was time to pick 'bramble berries', or as we know them blackberries, to make jelly this is her description: "This was a difficult year for brambles, I discovered. There were enough, but not so many that I didn't have to work for them. I climbed and clambered and delved, got scratched and stung-that is all part of the job, of course. But when I wriggled on my stomach under a wooden fence and my top became thoroughly entangled in some old barbed wire, it was not so jolly after all. Then several cows came and stared down at me reflectively, and the dog ran in anxious circles, while I went into contortions trying to free myself. I got very hot and cross and then knocked over the basket of berries, before finally extricating myself by pulling hard- and rending my top. Still,....brambles should be free-but not easy. At the end of the day, I am stung, scratched, sore and stained, and the kitchen smells marvelous. There are rows of glowing jars on the dresser shelves, like so many jewels, deep red, orange, burgundy, pale pink, pale green, and purple-black. I gaze in deep satisfaction, and I feel as if we shall indeed be preserved against the ravages of this coming winter, and go off to have a long, hot, soothing bath."
Another thing that struck me as I read this section in the book, were the amazing varieties of things she preserved. They canned everything...much, much more than we do, or at least than we do now. She canned crabapples, elderberries, quinces, gooseberries and the like. She could get them free for the picking, and did just that. She lists: preserved quinces as well as quince jam, various types of chutneys including apple, green tomato and elderberry, mincemeat, crystalized plums, spiced pickled plums, plum orange and walnut jam, canned damson plums, damson plum cheese, crabapple jelly, bramble jelly, bramble and apple puree, and elderberry apple jelly. I also noted that all of these are really accompaniments not necessarily main items like our canned fruits and vegetables. I think we as American women used to can and preserve some of these things too, but as they are a lot of work it fell out of favor as we have such an abundance of items to buy that we no longer have the NEED. I loved reading about how much she enjoyed her work and looked forward to it every year. This quote sums up how she felt about it: "Then, I wash up the preserving pan, bowls, knives and wooden spoons, and put them all away until next autumn, and make a pot of tea, and sit feeling entirely contented, and rather smug. Over the next months, the jars of jelly and jam and chutney will be opened and eaten, and given away to friends for Christmas, and taken as contributions to the harvest festival and the autumn produce sale and the school Christmas bazaar, and I shall feel glad that at least some of the fruits of the garden and the hedgerows have been put to the best of use."
This is a great way to round off late Autumn, heading into our greatest showcase of harvest food....Thanksgiving.