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.
The first 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.
And the 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 with children.
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.
Rhodes had 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!
Frederick 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:
Street Floor- Jewelry, cosmetics, women’s accessories, luggage, stationary, candy, party place, smoke shop and men’s store.
2nd Floor- Shoes, lingerie and underwear, women’s sportswear and coats, millinery and uniforms.
3rd Floor- Designer Boutique, millinery salon, evening shop (formal wear), bridal, fur salon and maternity.
4th Floor-Infant, toddler and children’s shops, high school shop, children’s hair styling, hobby shop, toys, portraits, books, and Mr. Foster Travel Service.
5th Floor-Beauty Salon, china, art wares, glassware, The Continental Crystal Room, fine paintings, bar accessories, lamps, bridal registry, silver and flatware.
6th Floor-Oriental rugs, bedding, bath shop, curtains, fabrics, sewing machines and needlework.
7th Floor-Televisions and sound equipment, furniture, Studio of Interior Design, Home Planning Bureau and The Old World Shop.
8th Floor-Housewares, Gourmet Galley, appliances, hardware, paint and wallpaper, the garden shop, the Little Gallery, the Exhibition Hall and the various restaurants.
9th Floor- Credit office and customer service. Free gift wrapping during the holidays.
Basement-Paul Bunyon Room and the budget floor.
This store 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!
Mom seldom 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.
Another 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!
Frederick 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