Windy City Memories … of the Way Department Stores Were

I have been thinking a lot lately about all the department and discount stores I frequented over the years … going back to my earliest memories as a young child through the 1990s. I have always had a knack for sniffing out bargains and some of my fondest memories fall into that category, while others are more dramatic.

Of course, being a native Chicagoan, I too bemoaned the demise of the iconic classic department store Marshall Field’s and will begin there. Everybody has their own memories of Field’s (I am not talking Frango Mints), but among those that stand out for me:

  • My dad getting really annoyed with me because I was afraid to go down the escalator at the Old Orchard Field’s – he had already descended to the bottom and had to come back up and fetch me, age 7 or 8.
  • My mom taking us to see Santa Claus at State Street (despite being Jewish) including lunch at the Walnut Room – and that awesome Christmas tree, age 8 or 9.
  • My mom taking me shopping at State Street after my eyes were dilated by an old stodgy ophthalmologist – everything was a big gorgeous blur of color, age 10.
  • Witnessing an old lady with blood pouring down her stockings – her leg had somehow gotten caught in the moving escalator. This happened at the Old Orchard Field’s and again I was shopping with my dad, age 11 (good thing I had not seen that at age 7 or 8 – would have caused a permanent escalator phobia).
  • That glorious bargain basement and all the wonderful things bought at a steep discount.
  • Fast forward to 1981 – registering for wedding presents at Old Orchard 14 years before the demise of my marriage.
  • Exchanging baby gifts at Old Orchard with my newborn baby and nursing her in the ladies’ room, July 1987.
  • My now 2-year old stepping out of her umbrella stroller at State Street near the 7th Floor escalator and disappearing for an interminable 5 minutes or so while I absolutely panicked searching for her, August 1989.

Wieboldt’s was another favorite and although I shopped as a young adult at the State Street store, it was the store in Lincoln Village Shopping Center that brings back the most memories. My mom collected S&H Green Stamps and as a special treat, she would let each of us redeem the stamps for a little gift once in a blue moon. I still have a little goldtone heart pendant with fake fire opal that both my younger sister Janet and I got – we must have been about 5 and 9 respectively.

Prior to that, when I turned 6, I scored the mother of all green stamps toys when my mom redeemed an enormous number of books at Wieboldt’s for an awesome Chein tin toy roller coaster. This toy never worked correctly and it wound up in the back of my closet – wish I had it now, but all I have is a film my dad shot of that birthday and the little roller coaster cars not staying on the track!

When I was in junior high school, I remember my mom and I laughing hysterically when an elderly blue-haired clerk walked away from the cash register to check on inventory for us, tooting all the way as she let out a barrage of hot air.

I did have a grand old-time in the bargain basement at State Street during my work lunch breaks – this would have been circa 1982-1985 when I was employed at Irving Cohn Jewelers/M. Y. Finkelman in the Maller’s Building. Of course by then Wielboldt’s had become a pretty shabby store with inferior merchandise, but I did score a gorgeous full length wool coat for a remarkable $6.00!

Woolworth’s has a special place in my heart. By the time I was 10, I was taking the bus by myself to downtown Chicago from Lincolnwood. How I loved going to the Woolworth’s on Michigan Avenue. and later to the giant flagship store on State Street. My mom rarely gave me any money beyond what I needed for bus fare, but I managed to find spare change on the ground or sometimes brought my meager savings earned from returning Diet Rite bottles to the corner store. Here are a few of my favorite Woolworth memories:

  • Getting caught at age 5 with a beautiful, large multi-colored balloon that I had stolen. While it only cost 2 cents, my dad made me take it back to the manager and apologize. As I recall, I received further punishment at home.
  • Convincing my mom to buy me a bottle of cheap dime store perfume called Blue Waltz.
  • Eating in the State Street store cafeteria with my mom – there is nothing quite like dime store fare. I can remember the aroma of the hot dogs spinning around on a cooker and the macaroni and cheese.
  • The incredible Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches – the ice cream was sandwiched between two thick wafers that had the taste and consistency of a waffle cone. These things were square and mammoth – at least that’s how I remember them.
  • My older sister got her ears pierced and I bought her some really cute genuine pearl and gold-filled earrings for only $1.00.
  • Buying grab bag stamp collections for $1.00 with huge, gorgeous, colorful stamps from faraway lands.
  • By the time I was 12, I would enjoy going to the basement at the Michigan Avenue store to browse through the bargain bin LPs. I bought an album by Strawberry Alarm Clock and a more obscure album by The Monkees. I was also into beading and remember buying some cool metallic blue bugle beads and colorful sequins.

The other department stores that I recall fondly were more obscure – Crawford, with a store on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park and another branch in Rolling Meadows that I didn’t know about until I was in my 30s and had moved to the Northwest suburbs. I just discovered that there were a few other stores, but none that I frequented. I am not sure why I liked Crawford other than that it was a good old-fashioned store with Art Deco wood and glass cases and elderly clerks. For some reason I found the back entrance through the parking lot enchanting. My mom took us there frequently and she bought purses, stockings, socks, and towels. I do remember that they had good deals on shoes before any of the bargain off-price shoe stores existed. This store met its demise in 1993, unable to keep up with the explosion of major chains.

The last category is a hodge podge of long defunct discount stores – some going back to the 1960s and others as recent as the 1990s. I certainly have a few memories that stand out, but mainly I’m feeling pangs of general nostalgia for these stores that have disappeared from the consumer landscape.

I welcome any recollections from folks in Chicago as well all over the country on bygone stores that impacted you in some special way.

 

8 Comments:

  1. I stumbled across your site and was pleasantly returned to my youth at the mention of Wieboldts. Probably ’64-’65 I was allowed to take the bus from Kedzie and North Ave to the store at Milwaukee and Paulina to meet my Mom, who was a “checker/cashier” in the food store section. Remember the pound cake?? I got to wait for her at the lunch counter where her friends, the waitresses, would set me up with ice cream. I miss those days and I especially my Mom.

    • Thanks, Bob – I am glad this post evoked fond memories of your youth and trips to Wieboldt’s to visit your mom. The Lincoln Village store didn’t have a food section – unfortunately, I never went to the Milwaukee and Paulina location. However, your mention of the pound cake reminded me of a great department store called the Outlet I enjoyed as a freshman in college in Providence, Rhode Island. They had an awesome bakery section tucked away in a little corner of the store. It is a shame that nothing stays the same, but we will always have our memories.

  2. wttannehill@aol.com

    Betsy,

    I happened across this while searching on Irving Cohn Jewelers. My parent and grandparents were avid return customers of Irv’s. As a child I remember all day trips downtown (from the southwest suburbs) that included a stop at Irv’s. In later year, my folks dealt with a salesperson there, I believe his name as Eddie. (could be wrong). He even came out to Oak Lawn for my mother’s wake in the early 90’s (91 or 92). Irv used to always have a toy or gift for my sister and I whenever we visited. In the 80’s I worked for a company that owned Chas. A. Stevens and Baskins, and had an office at 25 N State. I have fond memories of Wieboldts, Fields and all the other stores in the downtown area. Thanks for the memories.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane. And yes, you are absolutely correct – Eddie Rumbaugh worked at Irving Cohn Jeweler’s for his entire life. He started as a teenager and retired as store manager. He was a swell guy – I liked working with him and I even painted a portrait of him as a wedding gift. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and memories!

  3. Hi, I hope you can help. The building at 3151 Lincoln Avenue – was that a section of the Goldblatt’s building? If not, would you know what business was located at that address? Thank you very much.

    • Hi Tom: Yes, 3151 N. Lincoln was part of Goldblatt’s. According to an article from the Chicago Daily Tribune, dated January 24, 1929, Goldblatt’s was in the process of buying the building located at 3155 N. Lincoln. It formerly housed the Struve Department Store. This location became the fourth Goldblatt’s store in Chicago, joining already operating outlets at 1609 W. Chicago Avenue, 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, and 91st Street and Commercial Avenue.

  4. Betsy, Thank you.

  5. I am Irving Cohn’s grandson and worked in the store with my grandfather and Eddie in the 1950’s. I still have some of his infamous toys he gave to the children visiting the store. Your comments and stories brought back a lot of very fond memories.

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