Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Golden Age of the Department Store

"It's all a far cry from the golden age of the big department store, when it was a place you dressed up to visit, just as you did when boarding an airplane or attending an NHL game."
(Jon Wells, "The Way We Shopped:  Hamilton and the Golden Age of the Department Store")

When my dad was growing up in Toronto in the 1930's and 1940's, that was the golden age of the department store.  Eaton's was located downtown on Queen Street.  My grandma would put on her best dress, don her fur coat and hat, and climb on the streetcar to head downtown for some serious shopping.

Department stores were all about what was pleasing to the eye, "designed with Edwardian architectural touches, ornate doorways, huge display windows; and inside, Art Deco flair".  ( When my grandma took a trip to Eaton's, it was like a feast for the senses:  it never disappointed. 

Department stores were all about the ambience.  When my grandma opened the doors to the Eaton's store on Queen Street, she wasn't run over by a sale hungry mob.  She didn't rush down the aisles, her fur hat flying off her head, to find what she was looking for.  She didn't mutter epithets under her breath as she waited at the checkout with her purchases.  No, my grandma took her time when she shopped.  She waited patiently in line until she was served.  She thanked the salesperson properly for her service.

Department stores back then were all about service.  At Eaton's, she would be greeted by a polite elevator operator who would ask her what floor she wanted.  A courteous salesperson in the perfume department would greet her with samples of scents.  Another polite salesperson would help her pick out some children's clothing for my dad, maybe a pair of short pants that he hated so much.  A third courteous salesperson would help her pick out a spring hat for Easter.  In the shoe department, a sales clerk would help her try on a comfortable pair of shoes.  In the housewares department, a sales clerk would show her a selection of casserole dishes to purchase, since casseroles were her specialty.  At the candy counter, a sales clerk would fill a bag with some rosebuds which she would hand to my grandma with a smile.  The same elevator operator who brought my grandma upstairs would bring her back down, still smiling.  Grandma would exit the store, her parcels in hand, feeling quite good about the whole experience.

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