When I was young, at least before I was a teenager with a license, shopping was a big deal. First, my mother had appearance rules; we actually had to dress appropriately before we ever left the house. Not necessarily in the hat and white gloves of her youth, but certainly never faded jeans or wrinkled shirts. I could go into the whole “dressing properly sends a message of who you are” thing, but that was only part of it. Shopping on Saturday morning, or on a weekday morning when school was out meant preparation. We girls had our baths the night before to get an early start on the day. Beds were made and nightgowns folded and put away in a hurry. If you didn’t look nice, you were sent back upstairs to change, so you might as well do it right the first time. Nice meant school, not play clothes, with the proper (clean) shoes as well.
There was always a brief disagreement over who would sit in the front seat, resolved with a promise that sister would get her turn on the way back home. This issue is unchanged with children of today. In the car, there would be a brief discussion as to whether this was a “looking at day” or a “buying day”. If it was a “looking at” day, we knew not to ask for a thing; mom was on a budget. Even on buying days though, the treats were usually small and purchase was dependent on our good behavior.
We usually shopped at the big department stores–they had everything. My mother and sister always loved “Home Furnishings” and “China”; and could spend long periods of time just wandering through the aisles. Because I was usually bored silly in those areas, I would prudently carry a small paperback book in my pocket. I would sit and read, cross-legged in a corner until they were finished looking. Then we would go to “Children’s Clothing” for matching outfits to wear to school. My mother frequently dressed us like twins although we were three years apart. We hated this. If there was a white sale we would stop in “Fine Linens”; it seemed as though my mother could never have too many towels and washcloths.
The best part of the whole store was “Toys”. Usually located on the top floor, tucked in a corner near the candy counter, the toy department was like a magnet. Rom upon row of Madame Alexander dolls was displayed dressed in bright colors and style to represent other countries or characters from books. There were all sizes from as small as your hand to two feet tall. Near them were stacks of classic storybooks from children’s literature with gilt edged pages and full color illustrations. For a book lover like me, this was the ultimate draw, I could stay there forever. There were also fine wooden toys from Germany, as well as model trains and cars. This was boy stuff that held no interest for us. After extracting solemn promise from us not to handle the dolls or leave the department, my mother would walk over to “Better Dresses” to enjoy her own wishing and dreaming. My sister and I would look at all of those dolls and try to pick the prettiest one. It was impossible.
By this point, we were all usually ready for lunch so we would go to the tea room inside the store. Although department store lunch counters were all different, they were usually geared to females. Quite often, everything was painted white or light pastels with lots of greenery in the way of ferns or ivy. The menu’s were simple, sandwiches, soups, and salads. At the end, our favorite part (on a buying day) was a visit to the candy counter for a small bag of bridge mix, chocolate covered raisons, or best of all, non pareils. We could have some of these once we got back to the car for the ride home, with the rest eaten during TV time that evening.
After lunch, we might stop at the “Men’s Department” to get my father something for work. There was always “Cosmetics” so that my mother could purchase Estee Lauder. I didn’t realize that this was the brand name of a line of products; I thought that it was another name for makeup. My mother especially loved “Estee” perfume and scented powder when I was young. To this day, I associate it with her. We would take a quick tour through “Housewares” to see if there was anything new but we rarely purchased. My mother made appliances and cookware last for years. It was then time to leave.
On the way home, we would often stop at the bakery to pick up dessert to have with dinner that night. My mother was an excellent baker herself but she liked to have a specialty cake or sweet for Saturday night, almost like a celebration of the week being over as well as the end of an enjoyable day.
It truly hasn’t been that long since I was a girl but department stores are not like this anymore. They certainly aren’t downtown and there are no more lunch counters. Shopping has become ordinary, and often tedious. We have lost something special.