Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grandeur Gone With the Tides of Time

I've been reading reminiscences of Woodward and Lothrop -- Woodies to the locals -- in the Washington Post. I, too was heartsick when I heard that fine old department store was closing. I felt the same way when my beloved Marshall Fields was bought a few years ago. It had been an elegant, recognizable fixture in downtown Chicago. It was also the anchor store for our little suburban Market Square. Fields, as we familiarly called it, was where brides shopped for their wedding gowns in an elegant salon. The sales ladies all wore modest black dresses with stockings and heels and treated the brides like princesses. Like Washington's Woodies, Fields was also where wealthy matrons had their furs cleaned and stored during the off season. Fields would also clean and block one's kid gloves and offered a huge selection of the very finest. I recall that there was a code dictating which gloves to wear for which event. It had to do with their length, the number of buttons on them and, of course, color. One did not shop in Fields wearing jeans and flip-flops. During the era when ladies and young ladies (that's what well-mannered girls were called) all wore dresses, Fields was the place to shop for them. The selection was always tastefully conservative if not a bit boring. The bigger Marshall Fields stores had gracious tea rooms where ladies lunched and enjoyed their leisure. My favorite lunch was their cheesy chowder; an incredibly rich clam chowder. Frango Mints were world famous as were a few other gourmet treats sold exclusively by Marshall Fields. My family was not wealthy, but our Chicago suburb had long been home to some very wealthy families. For the most part, they had old money, so were down to earth and never snooty. Mom knew several of these families because she had sung at funerals, weddings and in our local opera company. She sometimes would be gifted with tickets to the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera. [One time, when I went with her to the symphony, I sat next to Mrs. Pirie. Her family was connected to Carson, Pirie, Scott -- another chain of department stores. I struggled to suppress my fascination with an absolutely enormous, cornflower blue sapphire ring she wore. Her furs didn't impress me, but that stone sure did!] It's sad that the grand, old department stores with their polished brass and bronze fittings, plush carpeting, chandeliers and uniformed elevator operators and washroom attendants are now history. Those stores thrived because of their painstaking attention to customer service and their charming amenities that made shopping an event. They purveyed quality products and a comfortable formality and elegance that made everyone feel special. Marshall Fields and Woodward and Lothrop were places where good manners mattered. It would have been unthinkable to leave a wad of ABC gum on a dressing room door!

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