Christmas Shopping in the ’50s

When I was a child the Christmas season always included a trip to Chicago, specifically to the Loop and to the grand old stores along State Street and Wabash Avenue.

There were many stores, many exciting sounds, many overwhelming sights, but Marshall Field’s was always a particular highlight. With snow falling about us, slush under our feet, and the “L” rattling above our heads we happily walked the full block around Field’s, thrilled by the spectacle of their holiday windows. At this season Field’s apparently didn’t think they needed to display their goods to those outside the store. Instead they turned nearly all their street-level display windows into a series of dioramas, holiday images, different every year, and often including moving figures, and always unified by some special theme. One year the whole story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was told in image and word to those who chose to walk clockwise around the store, from Old Marley, “dead as a doornail” but appearing as a glowing face on Scrooge’s doorknocker, through the salvation of Scrooge and the rescue of Tiny Tim.

Down the street Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company’s windows wore a similar holiday glow, but Field’s was where we spent most of our time. Inside, a 3-story-tall Christmas tree stood in the atrium — best viewed piecemeal from windows on the upper floors. Once upon a time I knew where every interesting department was located, at least those departments of particular interest to a child — the toy department on the third floor, I think, and the bookstore on the fourth, maybe. Excitement was everywhere. People streamed by carrying packages, some seemed to be trying to carry more than they possibly could. We pushed through the exotic revolving doors, usually not going round and round again, and if we divided into smaller groups we arranged to meet under Field’s clock. And we often ate in one of the store’s restaurants, or in a rather elegant (at least to the eyes of a small-town boy) cafeteria, whose name I have forgotten, that stood across Randolph Street from Field’s.

And of course, when we were little there was the visit to Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, and to Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly (Field’s inventions who puzzled me because I never heard about them anyplace else). One special year when I was very young — maybe 5 or 6 — the day my parents had chosen for our Loop visit coincided with a large winter storm. All over northern Illinois people were told not to travel, but we went anyway, my father fearlessly plowing our car though storm and snow and 90 miles of pre-Interstate highways and city streets. And when we got to the Loop, almost no one was there. All the city people had decided to stay home, but the stores were open. We had the store to ourselves, and my sister and I had the toy department and Santa’s lap without lines or crowds.

Some time during each visit to Marshall Field’s my father would disappear on some ill-described errand, and on his return my sister and I would abandon our mother and her mysterious errands to go off with him on the next destination in our excursion — Vaughan’s Seed Store. A seed store may seem a strange highlight for Christmas shopping, but it was definitely worth the two block walk from Field’s. A long staircase led from the first floor, which not surprisingly was filled with packages of seeds, to the second floor, more like a large mezzanine actually, which was filled with the most amazing, brilliantly colored toys — English tin soldiers, knights, castles, dolls. It was a tiny wonderland, much more intense than Field’s toy department, and a necessary part of the Christmas season.

And finally the end of the day came. Tired, probably cranky, definitely over-excited about the approaching holiday, we rode home, usually asleep before we were actually out of the city, lulled by the wordless sounds of our parents’ voices drifting from the front seat.

I sometimes wonder whether people who lived in Chicago ever enjoyed the Loop in the Christmas season the way we out-of-towners did.

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2 thoughts on “Christmas Shopping in the ’50s

  1. I had forgotten all about Vaughan’s. What a wonderful memory.

    Adding to your storyof the great snow storm: it is vivid memory for me because we were the only children waiting to see Santa Claus and Company. There was a TV news crew waiting for something to film so they chose us, actually you. How could a sweet little blond, blue eyed boy fail to be human interest?

    Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe reached for you and you began to cry, refusing to go with them. Santa came over and finally coaxed you onto his lap but only if Mom stayed nearby. Needless to say, Mom rushed to the bank of pay phones after asking when the tape would aire (I wonder if there even are pay phones in Fields/Macy’s whatever it is these days.) She called family in Chicago to let them know that you were on TV with Santa. Since this was before anyone in our family had a vcr—were there such things back then?–we didn’t get to see your tv debut. For that matter, I don’t even remember if any family members saw you on TV.

  2. All I really remember about that snowy day is the maze of ropes that had been set up to channel the crowds of children into some semblance of an organized, single line. But that day the maze was empty, leaving only Santa on his throne with Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe standing by. I’m not surprised Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe frightened me. It seems that their faces were made of cloth, but that was probably not true.

    Mom said that Aunt Evie saw me on TV, but I don’t know about anyone else.

    I remember that we went to Vaughan’s every year, but I had no idea where it actually was, except that it wasn’t on State or Wabash. We just walked with Dad and we got there.

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