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LOST: An Incredible Emporium

by Joan L Cannon

If I get another e-mail reminding me of the price of butter or gasoline in 1938, I might do violence to my computer. Certain things are unworthy of sentimental recall; change is the nature of being alive. The fact that everything costs more now than in our parents' day is neither remarkable nor subject to reversion. Thus reminding ourselves of it is just non-productive.

Other things, like the atmosphere on a hot summer day in the city neighborhood where I grew up, or the blacked-out nights of World War II, or what department stores used to be like seem worth recalling for what we might be able to learn, even after half a century after they're no longer around. The past has lessons and pleasures to offer us.

John Wanamaker's department store (the one in New York City) probably means more to me because it was only two blocks away from where we lived. The store occupied two full city blocks between lower Broadway and Fourth Avenue from Ninth to Tenth Street. The Tenth Street block comprised a ground floor centered by a five-story rotunda that had curving staircases to the second floor anchored by a large pipe organ. That was the venue for all sorts of entertainment, but especially music, on offer to anyone who could be there to enjoy it. In the Depression, such free events were welcome, I'm sure, for many with no other access to diversion.

Our school was only a mile or so away, and we gave regular annual concerts ranged on those stairs at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. Since it was a Quaker school, we were decked out in appropriate costumes: gray rayon dresses with white caps and fichus for the girls, black suits with knee breeches and broad white Eton collars topped by pilgrim hats for the boys. There were almost daily noon-time recitals, carol singing by church choirs as well as our school choir before Christmas, and other performances to regale customers year round.

Nowadays we see gorgeous decorations for the holidays that must cost a fortune, but none exceed the fragrant fresh wreaths and greens and miles of velvet ribbon, acres of poinsettias, and a Santa with attendant elves that Wanamaker's displayed every year.

The ground floor around this space had jewelry, cosmetics, gloves and scarves, women's shoes, men's wear, hats, and the book store. Elevators were run by uniformed operators who recited the goods available on each floor. Furs and children's clothing and shoes, dresses and lingerie, shirts and ties and underwear; in short, anything one could need or want was available.

It's hard to believe that I could go home with a hard cover novel that cost no more than my weekly allowance. I still have a handsome cameo brooch my grandmother had bought in Italy and had set in red gold by the jewelry department.

I was an inveterate animal lover with very little discriminatory sense. I could go up to the fifth floor Pet Department and buy a tree toad and meal worms with which to feed it, the terrarium to house it, moss and small plants to decorate its artificial habitat. Or it might be a pair of white mice that I brought home. Those I remember in particular because they quickly learned to raise the door of their cage and escape. My mother was in constant fear of vacuuming one of them up, once it had gotten gray with city dirt from scurrying around loose.

The remaining floors in that building had the clothing departments we all expect to this day, as well as yard goods and sewing notions. The fifth and top floor housed a very nice restaurant, the beauty salon, a small theater where marionette shows were offered several times a month, and the pet department. The toy department seemed like a fairyland.

The building across the street was joined to the Tenth Street store by an enclosed bridge on the second floor and where you could shop to furnish your apartment or country retreat, if you had one. They sold pianos: grand, spinet, or upright; upholstery fabrics, draperies, and kitchen appliances. Everything that our family needed, except for standard groceries and alcohol, could be found at Wanamaker's. Gift items, gourmet treats and fancy chocolates, musical instruments other than pianos, sporting goods and evening clothes, waffle irons and radios were at hand. There was mass-produced and one-of-a-kind art, gift items, radios and phonographs and on and on.

Thinking back on it, I cant figure out how Wanamaker's stayed in business during the Depression. The store had an enormous staff, whose livelihoods doubtless depended on it for many years. The inventory was huge and so diverse, and the clientele within Manhattan would seem to have been so low on discretionary funds, it amazes me to think that they didn't close the store until the nineteen fifties.

I realize now that the New York store was a less impressive and opulent version of the original Wanamaker's in Philadelphia. The organ was smaller, the rotunda not so like a cathedral, but it was still over a million square feet. The art exhibits and musical events were less lavish, but in our lower east side neighborhood, they knocked the socks off a large number of immigrants and others who would never have experienced a much culture without that incredible emporium. It constituted another world for me, and a necessity of life for my parents.

I wish something like Wanamaker's could be created someday when we can look for beauty, utility and art for art's sake in a commercial venue when we no longer need all our resources for trying to save our species and our planet.

©2009 Joan L. Cannon for SeniorWomenWeb

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