Say Good-bye to Strawbridge's

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Once upon a time, even along the Main Line, there was B Altman's, Bonwit Teller, John Wanamaker, and Strawbridge and Clothier. In Center City you had their "flag ship" stores and other great but now gone retailers like Lit Brothers and Gimbels.

One by one, we said good-bye to these gracious days of retailing. But still, Strawbridge and Clothier hung on.

But then, in 1996, the family sold the stores. All that remained of the lore of Philadelphia retail giants was the name, "Strawbridge's".

But it was no longer the same. And now, we bid a final adieu to yet another victim of big box stores and mergers and acquisitions people.

Before we share today's article in The Philadelphia Inquirer , we would like to comment.

Ardmore held one of the more well known Strawbridge's stores. It is in Suburban Square, pretty much the original "mall".

Who hasn't, locally, bought a present at "Straw's"? Hit a Clover Day sale? It was not only a Philadelphia tradition..... Strawbridge's was a Main Line tradition, a LOCAL tradition, an ARDMORE tradition .

When the doors close in Ardmore that last time and the lights are lowered in finality,yet another tradition will have been sacrificed for "progress".

And isn't it sad. We have become a country of big box stores.

Yes, Neiman's is nice, as is Nortstrom...but they aren't "ours", a part of what it means to be from this area. And the families that lent the store their names were familiar to the community for their charitable endeavors, and general support for the communities in which their stores were placed. They provided jobs, as well as goods and services. They were nice.

Will the Ardmore location become another bland, boring Macy's? Will it be sold, and the building carved up, and all mention of "Strawbridge's" erased? Will it become a Boscovs, as several stores are rumored to become? (Boscov's is a GREAT store, but probably not fancy enough for Suburban Square, but we don't know...)

We welcome all of you who read this to register and post a comment about Strawbridge's - your thought, your memories.

Folks, this is why our local history, local businesses, and local traditions are so important to us. Because one by one, as we sit by, more disappears...almost daily. Whether it is the odd historic building, private home, or business, it ALL should matter. After all, once it is all gone, we can only lament it's passing. It's sad. Progress used to incorporate the past around here.....

Here is an excerpt to the article :

A Center City style fades away
Strawbridge and closure. The last of the old genteel giants fades into history today.
By Dianna Marder
Inquirer Staff Writer

We said our formal goodbyes to Strawbridge & Clothier in 1996 when it was acquired by the May Department Stores Co.

We mourned again in 2005 when May was acquired by Federated Department Stores.

Technically, Strawbridge's hasn't been Strawbridge's for a decade. But as long as the brass nameplate remained on the store established in 1868 by the Quaker merchants Justus C. Strawbridge and Isaac H. Clothier, we could pretend nothing significant had happened.

But today the Eighth and Market Streets store is closing. The Lord & Taylor store (née John Wanamaker) across from City Hall was closed last week and will be refurbished before reopening as a Macy's in August.

Federated has said it will keep the famed Wanamaker organ and the eagle that was the site of so many rendezvous. And spokeswoman Elina Kazan said the company would "make every effort" to preserve key landmarks from Strawbridge's center city store, among them the Dickens Christmas Village and the wild boar sculpture.

End of an era is an understatement.

For nearly 50 years, Center City shopping was defined by the elegant retail palaces on Market and Chestnut Streets: not just Wanamakers and Strawbridge but Gimbel Bros., Lit Bros., and N. Snellenburg & Co. - mostly family-owned businesses that made employees and shoppers alike feel like part of the royal family.

Featuring marble floors and polished mahogany counters, wide aisles and gracious staircases, plush restrooms for the ladies and in-store fashion shows by Junior League debutantes, Philadelphia's grand department stores stood as beacons of style and set the tone for public decorum.

Strawbridge & Clothier was "as distinctively Philadelphian as Carpenters' Hall or the Betsy Ross House," this newspaper noted on the store's 75th anniversary.

...."The family-owned department stores had enormous impact in shaping civic identity," says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "You could tell where you were by what store you were in.

"These were gorgeous, architecturally important buildings, with window displays like Broadway stages," Thompson says.

Today, shopping is dominated by big-box stores owned by enormous corporate entities.

"Going downtown was a significant part of childhood," Thompson says. "We've lost that experience and nothing will take the place of it."

Live radio broadcasts

They came on the Reading Railroad and on PTC; by subway and by bus, on the Shopper's Special and the Frankford El.

Legions of shoppers embarked from City Hall to stroll from Wanamakers to Snellenburg's, Strawbridge & Clothier to Gimbels and Lits - stopping along the way at Blauner's, B.F. Dewees, and the Blum Store.

Men in starched shirts, women with hats and gloves, children with their hair combed and shoes polished - they all came. In the 1920s, families went to Strawbridge's live radio broadcasts. In fact, each of the big stores had its own radio station: Gimbels' was WIP, Wanamakers' call letters were WOO, and Strawbridge's WFI, later merged with Lits' WLIT to become WFIL.

On Saturdays, shoppers stayed for lunch - tea sandwiches in Wanamakers' Crystal Tea Room or Strawbridge's Corinthian Room; soup in the Jefferson Room at Lits or a hot dog and custard at the Wanafrost stand in Wanamaker's basement.

.....From Germantown to Upper Darby, from Strawberry Mansion to Swarthmore, people shared a common experience. Listening to the organ in Wanamakers was free, and anybody could window-shop.

"The idea of the department store was to be all things for all people," says Marty Rogoff, who teaches business and marketing at Philadelphia University.

Yet each of the city's downtown stores had a distinct character.

"Wanamakers was very regal and glamorous," says Helene Kates of Broomall. "My father used to say that the rich people shopped there."

Lits and Gimbels were "more working class," she says. "They had less frills, and the kind of sales depicted on the Lucy show where ladies fought tooth and nail at the bargain tables and sales racks."

And Strawbridge "was like The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn," says Stan Steinberg, now 77 and living in Dresher. "It had class."

The department stores hired and trained staff as salespeople, not mere cashiers, and required them to dress in dark, solid, sophisticated colors.

"Women wore high heels and they were never without stockings," says Mary Lawrence, now 79, who worked in Gimbels, Strawbridge and Dewees, a women's specialty shop.

Anything purchased could be delivered - initially in horse-drawn wagons - because the customer was king.

"If a customer wanted a straight pin wrapped and delivered, they would do that free of charge," says Rosalie Marta, now 63, who got her wedding trousseau at Wanamakers.

Many women got their first charge accounts at Strawbridge, in the pre-plastic era when the cards were cardboard with a metal insert.

The stores had clubs and modeling classes for teens and preteens who aspired to be young ladies.

Linda Small of Huntingdon Valley attended Strawbridge's Charm School in the 1950s.

"We were taught how to apply makeup, how to walk gracefully, and everything a young lady at that time needed to know," Small says.

In 1966, Elizabeth Hanson of South Philadelphia was crowned Miss Lit Teen. She was there the day the Supremes came to the store to kick off Liteen Week in the spring of 1967, between their performances at the Latin Casino.

And Claire Rosenstein, who grew up in Oxford Circle, was in Strawbridge's Sub-Deb club.

"There were fashion shows and speakers from Seventeen magazine. They even took us on field trips."

"I feel so awful," says Rosenstein, who is now in her 60s. "With this store, so much a part of my culture is closing."

...the department stores became civic institutions. In Philadelphia, the Wanamakers, Strawbridges and other families of store owners demonstrated that they had a stake not only in the well-being of their employees, but also in the larger community.

....A uniformed doorman helped shoppers in and out of taxicabs. And Stockton Strawbridge, his sons and nephews were akin to movie stars.

Dale Kessler, who worked in women's fine shoes in the 1960s, remembers the Strawbridge men in their three-piece suits.

"Oh, how I loved Strawbridge's then! The Strawbridges themselves - father and sons - would walk the aisles there every so often, and to me they were like royalty."

But the Strawbridge family was "never condescending," she recalled. "They were always warm in their approach."

....Daniel D'Orazio, who worked at Strawbridge in 1959 when he was fresh out of college, got help when he needed it.

"My father suffered a severe illness and was hospitalized soon after my hiring. He was comatose and hemorrhaging profusely, and needed many blood transfusions. We had no medical insurance and were responsible for not only the hospital bill but also the blood transfusions, which totaled $1,200."

Even though D'Orazio was new on the job, the employee blood bank paid for the transfusions.

"I was always grateful to Strawbridge's for their generosity and thoughtfulness in my time of need."

....During the reign of the downtown department stores, buyers sailed to Europe and Asia several times a year to select and order Parisian dresses, English raincoats and Chinese silks especially for their shoppers in Philadelphia.

Now, you can be in a mall in Seattle and find the same clothing you'd find in a mall in St. Louis.

Retail industry expert Rick Segel laments what he calls the "homogenization of America."

"It is too bad," he says, "that we've lost the individual identity that was possible before the department stores all merged."

...Janet Young, who was a young mother when her husband's job brought the family from Kansas to Philadelphia, remembers a helpful saleswoman at Strawbridge in 1968.

"She asked if I had a credit card," Young recalled. "And I said no, but my husband does."

"Oh, my dear," Young remembered the saleslady saying, "every woman must establish her own credit. It will serve you well for the rest of your life."

"And later in life," Young says, "I always remember why I have credit."

"What we're saying goodbye to now," Young says, "is not what we've known all these years."

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