Letter from Katie: Blue Christmas

Far from family, the department stores of yesteryear were her retail therapy.

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The first time I went Christmas shopping in Cincinnati was in the late 1960s. I had just moved here from Alabama, and I was away from my family for the first time. Lonely doesn’t even begin to cover the emptiness I felt. I moped around instead of unpacking household goods. My husband had been transferred to General Electric at Evendale, so I had to make a new path for myself, find a new way of life, and I had to do it all at Christmas.

I knew no one, but I remembered my father’s admonitions about being in a new place. “Don’t criticize anything about the city,” he’d say. “Put yourself out for people.” So I didn’t complain when I got lost on Harrison Avenue (“Always take a sweater when you’re going to the west side of town,” a new friend’s mother advised me), and I tried baking pumpkin pies and leaving them outside the doors of our new neighbors on Thanksgiving. By Sunday evening after the feast, the pies were still there. My neighbors had, like Perry Como, gone “home for the holidays.” Making friends, with my thick Southern drawl and country-girl ways, looked like an uphill climb indeed.

Two Saturdays before Christmas I couldn’t shake my lethargy. I felt I had to go someplace where I could see people and lights or I would simply fold. I ended up downtown, at Shillito’s department store. I parked in a large covered lot across the street from the old telephone company. It was a dreary December day, snow blowing, the cold seeping through to my bones because the coat I had on was too light. It had been made for gentle Alabama winters, not the bitter Midwest. But I warmed up as I made my way to the most popular department store in town. Its front window glittered with Christmas pleasures: a lavishly lit tree, mannequins in formal dress, oversized tin soldiers, sugar plum fairies, toys of all kinds, and plaster models of joyful children unwrapping bicycles and games. My spirits began to rise.

Inside the store, scarves and hats were nearest to the door, so that someone like me, who ventured out poorly prepared, could accessorize herself against the damp and cold. “You could get great gloves at Pogue’s,” my friend Susan Abernethy Frank, who started her retail fashion career working at Shillito’s, once told me. “But at Shillito’s they taught you how to wear them.” She pretended to put on a pair of kid gloves, smoothed them down, then ran her right index finger between each finger of her left hand to settle the glove precisely. She grinned at me, her eyes sparkling. “In no time at all, the gloves fit like a second skin.”

Shillito’s was crowded with shoppers that day—so crowded you had to elbow your way to an escalator or one of the Art Deco–style elevators. Sportswear and formal wear were up two floors, then another floor up it was foundation garments. (Years later, the Katie Laur Bluegrass Band played for a bra and girdle-fitting clinic at the top of this escalator. The young men in the band kept imagining they were going to get a peek of forbidden fruit; no such luck.)

Housewares and furniture were on the top floors—where I eventually purchased my first grown-up bed, after years of sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Carpets hung from the ceiling, along with lavish drapes and lacy cotton curtains. Walk a little further and you were in the linens and then the small appliances, whirring away on the display counters like tiny robots: magical coffee grinders, blenders, pasta makers—anything that could be plugged in. And all the while the loudspeakers played “Let It Snow!” and “White Christmas” to get you in the mood to shop.

I roamed through the store, bottom to top and back again, and Christmas shopping worked its magic on me. By the time the Muzak was looping through the second chorus of “Silver Bells,” the throngs of busy shoppers and decorations and lights made me chipper once again.

 

In those years, Fred Lazarus III was still president of Shillito’s. He was part of a dynasty of retailers (his family owned Bloomingdale’s in New York), and he had his own ideas about class. He had been stationed in France in World War II and was a connoisseur of food and wine, so Shillito’s had an excellent selection of imported wines, cheeses, pâtés, and a very good lunch counter, with a menu selected to offer new and different food choices at reasonable prices.

I’ll never forget Fred and his inimitable wife, Irma, coming to a bluegrass festival where I was performing years after I got to know them. I had told Irma to pack a picnic lunch, and she brought a sparkling white wine, pâté, Brie, fruit, and a baguette. Picnics were Irma’s favorite activity and she didn’t mind that she was seated next to people who were eating baked beans and corn bread, hot dogs and potato chips.

I came to know the Lazarus family in the 1970s, and one night when Fred and I were alone in his study having a brandy, he told me a little bit about the store. Shillito’s had been started, he told me, by John Shillito, who worked as a clerk near the public landing in the early part of the 19th century. He sold dry goods to the steady stream of steamboat passengers, riverboat gamblers, and people on their way west: the adventurous spirits who floated down the Ohio River to Cincinnati on flatboats, where they outfitted ox-drawn wagons for the next leg of their journey.

While Fred talked, the fireplace crackled, and I heard the occasional barge making its slow, mournful way down the river. In my mind, I could see the raucous scene at the public landing, smell the smells and hear the noise: dock workers coiling and uncoiling the ropes that moored the boats to the harbor; steamboats picking up and discharging passengers, packet boats dropping off mail and other goods. There would have been many merchants like John Shillito, I’m sure. But his business prevailed, growing into the department store that the Lazarus family acquired in 1930.

When Fred came home from World War II, things were about to change in Cincinnati’s retail scene; he saw to it.

“We wanted to move party dresses,” he said dryly. “Irma was involved with the Symphony, the Opera, the Ballet, and I suggested they host some dress-up events. So…women had to have party dresses for these events, and we’d fill the windows with mannequins wearing wonderful dresses with blown-up pictures of the event invitations. That got the women buying dresses at Shillito’s. And, as I said, we helped support the arts organizations.”

He took a sip of his brandy—looking satisfied with himself, his eyes hooded like a snake’s—as the fog moved over the river, covering everything like a vaporous blanket. It could be downright spooky up there on that hill, especially in the winter.

I never knew much about who owned Pogue’s, the department store in the Carew Tower, but I knew it was definitely “for the carriage trade”—the wealthy customers who shopped for jewelry at the exclusive Newstedt-Loring Andrews on the south side of Fourth Street, Bankhardt’s Luggage, and of course Closson’s, where you could buy heavy silver flatware, exquisite china and crystal, notepaper from England, even soaps from France and—on the second floor—fine art in Phyllis Weston’s gallery.

Pogue’s lingerie department displayed their merchandise with the same reverence that Closson’s bestowed on Baccarat crystal; the silken peignoirs and the spaghetti-strapped charmeuse confections were all kept under glass. I especially remember the bedroom slippers: mules with two-inch heels and marabou puffs on the toes—the kind of shoes you’d see in a Fred Astaire movie, worn by Ginger Rogers with a long silk dressing gown tied at the waist. A lot of men came to Pogue’s lingerie department for their wives’ Christmas presents. You’d hear them telling the sales clerk, “Well, she’s just about your size…maybe a little shorter and broader in the hips.”

 

Downtown was a retail mecca then. People drove up from Louisville and Lexington, stayed at the Netherland, and ate at Maisonette or Pigall’s before they started their Christmas shopping. They’d stop at Henry the Hatters for mens’ ties, and at Henry Harris, a small, exclusive women’s dress boutique tucked into the southwest end of Carew Tower arcade, where old-fashioned fragrances like Lilly Daché were packaged in luxurious striped boxes with silver bows. Serious shopping went on at Henry Harris, and at Christmas they kept a well-stocked bar to fortify their clients.

But the jewel in the crown of Cincinnati’s retailing community was Gidding-Jenny. You’d walk in the front door, smell the fragrance of Odalisque, the store’s “signature” scent, step onto the thick cream carpeting, and you were in holiday shopping heaven.

Cosmetics were on the first floor, and not just cosmetics, but luxury creams, fabulous oils, expensive perfumes: Estée Lauder, before it became a household name, and Chanel No. 5. Does anyone besides me remember Polly Bergen’s Oil of the Turtle? It was touted as the most luxurious of creams, sure to give wrinkles the slip.

The beating heart of the store, though, was behind cosmetics. It was where your purchases were toted up, your charges made, your packages wrapped. I don’t think I ever saw a cash register at Gidding’s. Instead, your purchase slip was placed in a pneumatic tube along with your check, your money, or your charge account information. The transaction was sucked up to the office, where charges were OK’d or denied, change was made, and checks approved, then the bill of sale was returned through the same tube, flashing back like something out of science fiction.

At this same counter your purchase was packaged in ridiculously thick royal purple wrapping paper and placed in a royal purple shopping bag with the name of the store in gold. In fact, at Christmas, everything was gold at Gidding’s: the wrapping paper, the bags, the bows were an orgy of gilt.

Straight back through sportswear, at the other end of the store, was the table with Gidding’s legendary eggnog bowl. It was silver, and when you approached, a man dressed in white livery served you your grog with a sprinkle of hand-grated nutmeg on top—not in a paper cup, mind you, but in a tiny plastic disposable glass which you could walk around the store sipping while you shopped. It was spiked, too; it lowered your inhibitions and gave you a feeling of euphoria, as if you were floating on a cloud. To add to the luxurious holiday spirit, the store hired models to stroll around in fur coats and evening gowns.

Gidding’s third floor was for designer clothes. You sat down, gave the sales lady your size and told her what you were looking for, and it was brought out and presented it with a practiced flourish. It was all in the wrist: Whoosh! The skirt of the dress fell in a peacock spread as if it were being shown to the Queen of England. If that frock didn’t suit, another saleswoman was right behind, and—whoosh—another dress.

The prices on the third floor were out of my league, but I went there once with a friend. She wasn’t really planning to buy anything, but she had asked me to go with her because she was a little intimidated by the store. My companionship gave her sufficient courage; she ended up dropping about $1,000 on a couple of outfits in one afternoon. It was a breathtaking amount of money to me. But she wore the clothes for at least 10 years, and every time she put them on, she looked sensational and felt that way, too.

After Christmas the gloves came off, so to speak. That was when Gidding’s had the Attic Sale—truly a dog-eat-dog affair. Women went to the fourth floor well-dressed and well-mannered, and came out looking a fright: hair out of place, runs in stockings, and eyes glazed. They’d go in to the Attic Sale sane, but when they got in there and saw the prices, they were foxes in the henhouse: fur and feathers flying, teeth sharpened, feverishly snatching up bargains and trying on clothes in the middle of the floor willy-nilly. I knew a woman whose own jacket got sold right from under her nose; she’d taken it off to try on another, and by the time she got back to it someone had bought it and carted it off in a Gidding’s bag. The store only had attic sales twice a year—maybe because it took six months for customers (and saleswomen) to recover.

McAlpin’s was the people’s choice. A popular, moderately priced haven, it was crowded at Christmastime with exhausted shoppers vying for seats in the tearoom for lunch. They served Boston brown bread and cream cheese, and bracing cups of hot tea (something rare for me, a Southerner, accustomed to lots of ice and sugar).

Hathaway’s, the only familiar place still open downtown, is famous for its egg salad sandwiches on white toast, and it continues to look like a scene in a 1950s Technicolor movie. The waitresses’ hair is swirled up like the curl on top of a Dairy Queen cone or like spun sugar, a pencil occasionally stuck behind an ear, ever ready to take your order.

 

My first Christmas in Cincinnati away from my family was one of the hardest holidays I’ve ever celebrated. My theory is that lights and lavish displays were invented to take the weight off our memories, because I doubt that the holidays are a walk in the park for anyone.

When I was 15, my father moved us from Detroit to the small town of Huntsville, Alabama, where he was to work on the space program. That year, the holidays were awful hard, too. In place of Detroit’s huge department stores and holiday parades, Huntsville had one meager shopping center with a single row of colored lights, two of which had burned out. There was one store with a creaky old-fashioned elevator, and one movie theater.

We tried to be brave, but a gray, wet week dampened our spirits right before Christmas Eve, and we were so downcast we could barely stand each other. My mother ate Hershey’s kisses and rolled the aluminum wrappers into balls like shotgun pellets. “Christmas is a spirit,” she said, but ours had fled.

We needed a miracle. And so my father did what he always did when things got desperate: he summoned his best self, and in an effort to cheer the rest of us, he gassed up the Plymouth, threw all our presents in the trunk, then as an afterthought threw the tree in on top.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re getting out of here.”

It was already night when we started, but the moon and stars were shining and we squeezed together in the dark car and sang to pass the miles. We sang “Goodbye my Coney Island Baby” in four-part harmony, our faces so close we could have kissed, driving straight through to Detroit, straight back to the people and the places we loved. It turned out to be the best Christmas we ever had.

I can’t make that trip back to Detroit, just as I can’t retrace that shopping trip I took during my first Cincinnati Christmas. The retail institutions of that era are gone, or moved, or changed. Others have come in their place, of course. But there are no more department store tearooms, no dainty plates of brown bread and cream cheese, no one passing out eggnog to lubricate the gift-purchasing experience.

For all its angst, disappointments, and desperation, we all know that Christmas is not just about material pursuits. There are old customs that persist in the city—the nativity scene at Krohn Conservatory; the Boar’s Head Festival at Christ Church—and new ones being born (ice skating on Fountain Square). But whatever you do to celebrate the holiday, I hope you have time to spend just one Saturday afternoon cultivating your own personal traditions. Go shopping. Hide your presents. Toss the tree on top of the car and drive off to surprise someone. Have a merry old time. Just don’t drink too much eggnog.

Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Originally published in the December 2011 issue

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