Then & Now | Holiday Shopping Memories

John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.
Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society

The recent report of the conversion of the May Company building on Public Square into apartments is good news for the city.   Yet, some Greater Clevelanders will regret the change, much as they regretted the change of the Higbee Building into a casino, and the conversion of the Halle Brothers building.   Others will lament the loss of the Bing store at Prospect and E. 4th, or even remember Taylors Department store.  And then, of course, there are the memories of the large Christmas tree at Sterling- Lindner.  These memories truly rise to the surface at the holiday season.   Like many memories, they tend to be warm and wonderful, but then we also need to remember that the downtown department store was just one of the ways we shopped.  The way we shopped has changed – not once, but many times over the years.

One wonders how those who once shopped at individually owned stores devoted to specific products – everything from clothing to cook wear –reacted to the rise of the department store.   During the early years of Cleveland and other cities one usually purchased goods at single-owner store, a place where you came to know the owner and, also,  a place where you could often haggle for a bargain.   One could strike up a personal relationship – either good or bad – with the owner, and chances were the owner knew you by name.

That situation began to change with the growth of cities.  Population density and technological change led to the creation of department stores — places where it seemed the entire world of consumer goods was spread about before the customer and each with a set price – bargaining with the owner became passé.

Alexander T. Stewart, a Protestant Irish Immigrant is often credited with founding the first “department” store in New York City in 1848.   He became a multimillionaire and other merchants followed his example.  Rowland. H. Macy founded Macy’s ten years later.  Others, such as John Wanamaker and Harry Gordon Selfridge would follow.  The continued growth of cities, the mass production of consumer goods, and growing transportation networks would change the way people shopped.  Some of these stores grew into veritable palaces of consumption with specific departments focused on various goods, ranging from clothing to books, to furniture, to toys, and even to tools.  And so, for well over a century, American consumption – particularly during the holiday season — focused on a trip downtown to a store laden with a wide variety of goods and usually decorated to match the season.

Small specialty stores survived, but the main money went to the mass market of the department store.  And, of course, each store catered to a particular level of that mass market and some specialized in particular goods.  Cleveland had a variety of stores.  Bing specialized in household goods, Halle Brothers and Sterling Lindner appealed to what was once known as the carriage trade, as did Higbees to an extent.  The May Company which was founded in Denver and opened a store in Cleveland in 1899 had perhaps the widest clientele and its bargain basement was the place to save money and to get Eagle Stamps as well.  Taylor’s Department Store which was for many years overseen by Sophie Strong Taylor also had a particular cachet.

When Americans began to flock to the suburbs wise store owners followed by opening branches.   Halle’s did so in 1948 and by the late 1950s May Company expanded to the suburbs, including a branch at the new Southgate Shopping Center.   And so for many younger people (those born in the last forty to fifty years) the memory of holiday shopping is not downtown but at a store in a mall – and, indeed, malls are/were the ultimate centers of consumption.  So the memories they evoke are not about taking public transportation downtown, walks down crowded holiday streets, or escalator rides up to the seventh floor of the May Company to see the toy department, but rather a drive with the family to a mall (and each mall had/has a certain image and cachet) and visits to multiple stores almost all decorated for the season and, likely, the requisite Santa Claus ensconced in his chair in the middle of the mall.

The question is what will their children’s memories be?  Long before COVID confined us to our homes, we were again changing the way we shop.  Amazon has been with us for a mere 26 years, yet it and other on-line services have drastically changed the marketplace.  So will their memories be of cruising the web to find those things they dream of having, or watching for the delivery of packages to the front door? Perhaps though the memories of the holiday season will be the same as they always have been – of being safely together at a time when the world moves from ever shorter, darker days, to longer brighter ones.

(photo: Cleveland Memory Project – Bailey’s window shopping 1910.)