(From the archives: written in 2006 when Filene’s closed.)
How does one bid a final farewell to an old friend when that friend is a commercial establishment: the downtown Filene’s? Should those of us who hold her dear arrange a wake? Should we say, one last time, meet me at the clock which to every true Bostonian meant the corner of Washington and Summer, under the Filene’s clock? Should we share fond memories? Let me go first
Legend has it that my layette came from Filene’s, but MY first memory, fueled no doubt by the family photo album, is of sitting on Santa’s lap at Filene’s.. The year was 1940; I was two.F
Fast forward fourteen years: Christmas season, 1954. I had my first job, selling in the toy department. I loved it all: the throngs of shoppers, , suggesting toys and game., ringing up sales.
The following August I landed a part-time job in the women’s neckwear department on the street floor. In those days, neckwear involved not only scarves, but cases of artificial flowers to be worn on blouses, dresses, jackets. Throughout my senior year at Medford High School, I worked there all day Saturday and Mondays and Wednesdays, the only nights the store was open, from 3:00 to 8:30. That summer I worked fulltime. Sometime later, the store was remodeled, so you can’t find the exact location of that department anymore, but it was near an outside door and by three steps up to another part of the store. It was there that I had a life-changing experience: a young woman died moments after talking to me. She had stopped at the counter, said she didn’t feel well, asked for water, and abruptly sat on the stairs by the counter. As her face covered with blood , I called for medical help, and a co-worker ran over to Arch Street for a priest. Later we learned she died of a brain aneurysm on the way to the hospital.
That morning I had left the house in a huff over some teenage hassle with my mother. Hearing of this young woman’s death, I immediately asked for a break and went to a pay phone and called my mother to apologize. What if I had never made it home that day? What if something happened to my mother before I got home? Younger than most, I learned that day how transitory life is!
At the end of August, I left for college, but that was an election year, and Filene’s had a special presidential exhibit, accompanied by a “Know Your Presidents Contest” which I won. On Thanksgiving evening, we winners and our families boarded a bus for Washington, D.C. for a wonderful weekend of sightseeing, all expenses paid. We even got a sample at the U.S. Mint: a new one dollar bill.
The next summer, following my freshman year at Tufts (then Jackson), I was chosen for Filene’s College Board. We on the College Board , cut-out head shots larger than life displayed on the fourth or fifth floor, were outfitted in red plaid skirlottes topped with a red oxford-cloth button-down shirt. And, oh yes, we wore red knee socks and loafers. Our function was to provide wardrobe advice to girls and their mothers as they shopped for college . In these days of casual dressing, it sounds unbelievable, but at that time, at least at Tufts, girls were not allowed to wear slacks, never mind jeans, to class.
Members of the College Board were included in management training classes, in addition to selling in our assigned departments, mine being the Oxford Shop. One day we were transported to Harvard Square where we did a photo shoot for a Boston paper. That was exciting and the closest my life ever got to glamorous.
Several times we did informal modeling in Filene’s famous restaurant: the Salad Bowl. Located on the eighth floor, one wall of the restaurant was marked off by a huge half-salad – bowl. At this point I can’t recall if it served as a counter for seating or if waitresses picked up food orders there. The restaurant was a bright spot with lots of windows and cozy tables for two or four in a rather large area. We would circulate amongst the tables, introducing ourselves to patrons if they appeared interested and telling them in which department the clothes we were modeling were available. The Salad Bowl had always been a favorite lunch spot for me, my mother, and my aunt because it served the most delicious chicken pot pie in the world! I have the recipe, and, maybe once a decade, when I am feeling particularly ambitious, I make it.
My Aunt Dot , long a patron of Filene’s exclusive French Shop, bought me my wedding gown in the Filene’s Bridal Shop. According to the description provided by the Bridal Shop, it was white silk organza with a portrait neckline detailed with Alencon lace embroidered with sequins and seed pearls.
Then it was college graduation, my wedding, and a move, first to Rochester, New York, then to Wisconsin, then to New Jersey. Over the years of living away from Boston, every time I visited, I would head first to Filene’s. Now that I am back in New England, I have visited even more often. After listening to my stories, I think you know why. To me, Filene’s is not just a store; it is the memory vault of my early life. So good-bye old friend. Boston just won’t be the same without you!
© Dorothy C. Judd
Next post: Thursday, June 12th
(As I reread the above piece, I was shocked that I had not made one mention of the famous Filene’s Basement. Ah well, that’s a story for another day.)