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The Late, Great Department Store

Day five and Madge is still on pace in her goal to write a blog post every day this month during National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo).   Check out the official site on BlogHer, then come back daily to see how Madge is doing.

The Late, Great Department Store


And now dear readers a story…

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in an era long ago, there was the local department store. Now extinct, they were once found in every town. Larger cities had more than one, and they weren’t all called Macy’s.


They were owned and run descendants of the founders, who were leaders in their communities.  They built retail emporiums that occupied whole downtown blocks, often architectural masterpieces.


The Late Great Department store
Wilshire Bulloch’s in Los Angeles


They had a tearoom and a bargain basement and incredible Christmas windows that people would stand in line to see. These were stores that had a point of view and not the same merchandise as everyone else. Professional sales clerks, worked there, and were often with the same store their entire career. They knew you, your size and taste and would call you when something came in they thought you would like. There were floor managers, actually on the floor, often wearing carnations on their suit lapels, who stood ready to help you. (Yes they were almost always men, but no story can be perfect).


The Late Great Department store
Tea room at The Denver


Stores offered free gift-wrap, home delivery and charge accounts. A sale was really a sale; there were usually only two a year, so you knew you were really getting a deal. There were no constant mark downs, only the goodies that awaited you in that famous bargain basement. Shopping was an event; some might even call fun. You got dressed up and spent the day, taking a much-needed respite at noon in the tearoom for their signature chicken salad with grapes.

The late great department store
The Tiffany dome ceiling at Marshall Fields, Chicago


There was the Broadway and Goldwater’s in Phoenix, Joseph Magnin and the White House in San Francisco. The Denver and Neusteter’s in where else, Denver. Rich’s and Davison in Atlanta and my beloved Marshall Fields in Chicago. New Orleans had Maison Blanche and in Philly there was the legendary Wanamaker’s with their magnificent pipe organ.



The Late Great Department store
The Wanamaker organ







My mom and I shopped at Hartzfeld’s and The Jones Store in Kansas City; Stix, Baer & Fuller in St. Louis, and at Innes and Bucks in my home town of Wichita. And then of course there was: _____________ (fill in your hometown store here).


We all know the state of retail today. In fact here’s an article on a recent ill-fated shopping trip of mine in Atlanta.


It is possible, however, revisit those golden days through an amazing website called The Department Store Museum (DSM).


dsm logo


This site is a treasure trove of historic photos and in-depth descriptions the stores, including what was carried on each floor.  There are sample shopping bags and even photos of store credit cards and security badges.  Stores are organized by the state in which they were located and you can spend hours going through role of honor.


The site was created by Bruce Allen Kopytek, an architect in Massachusetts. Bruce has written three books, Toledo’s Three Ls: Lamson’s, Lion Store and LaSalle’sJacobson’s: I Miss It So, a history of the famous Michigan chain; and his latest Eaton’s: The Trans-Canada Store.   I reached out to Bruce about how he got interested in this subject.

“I have loved the “department store idea” since I was young and visited downtown Detroit when it was an altogether different place. Later, we visited big stores when we traveled, and whenever I had access to out-of-town newspapers in libraries, I traced department store logos, wrote down department locations, etc. It seemed like a foolish waste of time to a young man that was pretty studious. However it is actually paying off now.”


Bruce and his Department Store Museum reminds us that there was a time, not so long ago when the customer was king.  His site asks this provocative question: “why are we not good enough for such a gamut of retail options today?”


Why indeed.


See you tomorrow.

MadgesHatbox top vintage blog

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