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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Once upon a time, people did not race to the malls in order to dash from store to store in search of the perfect gift, or even an acceptable one. They did not face crammed parking lots, overburdened clerks, uninspiring displays, and a lunch of greasy fries or sugary treats that invariably led to a bad case of acid reflux.  Once upon a time, we went to grand department stores and, as we used to say, made a day of it.

These big stores, most of them built between 1870 and 1925, were often baroque-style structures. Most  featured high, mosaic ceilings and tile floors, wide aisles, crystal chandeliers, and any number of fine restaurants and tea rooms. Every major city seemed to have at least one of these “grand  dames”: Seattle (Frederick and Nelson), San Francisco (the Emporium), Boston (Jordan Marsh), Dallas (Neiman Marcus), Miami (Burdine’s), New York (Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s), St. Louis (Famous Barr), Philadelphia (Wannamaker’s) and Chicago (Marshall Field’s), to name a few. Many were modeled after their European counterparts, Harrod’s of London or Printemps in Paris, but always with an American twist.  

As a little girl, I eagerly anticipated our yearly holiday department store outing because it involved much more than dropping in on our respectably staid local department store, Gimbel’s. Instead, our day would consist of a trip to Chicago by train, where we’d invariably visit the renowned Chicago Art Museum and then head to Marshall Field’s. 

In the years since, I’ve been in many department stores. But in my six-year-old  Midwestern eyes, Marshall Field’s was the grandest store imaginable. 

The man behind the business, Marshall Field, was an entrepreneur who described his enterprise as an “emporium.” His motto was “give the lady what she wants,” not exactly pc but an accurate reflection of his loyal customer base for many years. In its heyday, Marshall Field’s was a formidable brand that included well-known confectionaries* and a popular cookbook. The store itself was a temple to consumer goods with some stunning architecture: the clock at the State Street entrance, the stunning Tiffany Mosaic Dome, and the elegant Walnut Room.  Field’s, as it was sometimes called, featured six well-regarded restaurants, including a Men’s Grill Room and place for afternoon tea. At Christmastime, an area was set off for “Santa-land,” a fantasy concoction of elves and trees, fake snow and twinkly lights and a path that led directly to a real-looking Santa with a real beard (being a department store Santa was once an honorable profession). The entire store looked like a gigantic gift package, from the extravagant window displays to the festooned crystal chandeliers.

*Marshall Field’s world-famous Frango mints, (chocolate mint truffles) actually originated with Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson but Field’s broadly expanded the market. Marshall Field’s also sold caramel turtle candy in competition with its Chicago rival, Fannie May.)

 Our trip to Chicago was a dress-up occasion; we wore jumpers or dresses with gloves and hats (my mother kept us in matching outfits until I rebelled shortly after my eighth birthday) and patent-leather shoes unless an early snowstorm necessitated boots. We ate breakfast on the train and went to the museum when we arrived. Then it was time for lunch in the Walnut Room and sometimes a fashion show.  Although I was only mildly interested in clothes and shopping, I loved those lunches; they provided me with a window into what it might mean to be a grownup.  After lunch, we’d walk the store and look—and look and look. We bought candy, of course, and sometimes a gift for my father, if for no other reason than to have it gift-wrapped by people whose magic transformed a gift box into a work of art.   

There was, I realize, as much ostentatiousness on parade in the old department stores as in the new. We really weren’t as a people any less acquisitive one hundred or fifty years ago than we are now; but perhaps we were more inquisitive. And I’m sure there were hurried, harried shoppers then as now. But there was, I’m fairly certain, more wandering going on, more watching and looking and taking it all in with a sense of wonder. Of course I was very young and many things were wonderous to me.

 A number of the grand department stores have been bought by Federated, which owns Macy’s. There’s a sameness about them that’s a little dispiriting, not to mention all those people with bent heads barreling through the store. But the grand architecture remains, as do some old traditions and perhaps some new ones, such as this event that took place recently at the former Wannamaker’s (now a Macy’s) in Philadelphia. Christmastime may be commerce time but that doesn’t mean we can’t all look up and take in some wonder.

Resources:
Marshall Field’s cookbook
History of deparment stores 

Bring Back Marshall Field’s

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Cheer Up!

‘Tis the week of the holidays; we’re feeling blue

The weather is lousy; there’s too much to do

If you follow the news, there’s a lot of despair

What with famine and fighting and ongoing terror

Not so great close to home, with recession on end

And the bailout will cost what we don’t have to spend

Yeah, we’re biting our nails ’cause the Dow’s gone insane

And forget about traveling by car or by plane

But wait, we were hopeful not that long ago

Remember? November? Let’s get back that glow

Hey, Britney is back; cancer cases abate

The movies look good and the Giants look great

Corrupt politicians, inept CEOs?

Well, they’ve always existed; instead think of those

Who are guarding our cities or fighting our wars

Who are teaching our children or feeding the poor

And give thanks for such selflessness; it’s not so rare

It just claims less attention but we know it’s there

So pull it together and grab a libation

Light candles, wrap presents or make a donation

Go hug a kid, kiss your spouse, call your mother

The world may be dark but we do have each other

Happy/Merry

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Come ye now and let us dwell not upon angry disagreements about the meaning of Christmas; nor spend undue amounts of time thinking of the pain of traveling cross-country to see family we scarcely know (though we may spend undue amounts of time in the airports or on the roads). Let us turn our minds and hearts away from the desperate lengths to which we will go to find a perfect gift for a loved one nor the many for whom we forgot to shop and break free of the endless cycle of Christmas specials that clutter our televisions. Instead, let us acknowledge the spirit of kindness, charity and general benevolence as exemplified by a few lovely stories I happened to spot.

  • A rumpled Chistopher Lloyd-type professor has captured the attention of Internet denizens with his endearing and zany lectures on physics.
  • In drought-stricken Africa, a creative entrepreneur has introduced a merry-go-round attached to a water pump, storage unit and tap; when the kids jump on and spin, the water flows.
  • An American soldier deployed to Iraq adopted a young boy with cerebral palsy and, against all odds, brought him to the United States to live.
  • HRM, the Queen is on YouTube!

Best of all, we have a few days (probably only two, although one can always hope) in which we won’t hear from or see the candidates tramping through the ice or snow in Iowa and New Hampshire, trailed by hordes of pollsters, pundits and whatnot.  January promises to be all-primary all the time but for now we can be grateful for the respite. Pace.

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