Filene ‘s Basement
In Boston “The Basement” meant only one place: Filene’s Basement. Although other stores also had a basement, only Filene’s had the famous “Automatic Markdown Basement.” Opened in 1909, the oldest off-price retailer in the U.S., it was the brainchild of Edward Filene who saw it as a way to get rid of overstock or end-of- season stock from the upstairs store. Soon manufacturers, designers, area stores, and big-name stores such as Bergdorf’s, and Neiman Marcus began selling their goods to The Basement. The unique aspect of this basement was that, as each item was prepared for the selling floor, a date was stamped on its tag. After 12 days, the price was reduced by 25%, after 18 days, 50%, 24 days 75%, and after 30 days, given to charity. So not only did it offer the allure of the big, advertised sales, but the challenge of finding an even more deeply discounted item. Affectionately called “Madame F.B.’s” by locals, its popularity ensured that if you ever did pay full price for an item of clothing, you didn’t admit it.
The slogan was “Walk Through Every Day” which is exactly what my Aunt Dot did as for years she made the trek from Cambridge to Medford, changing trains at the Washington Street station which just happened to have an entrance to “The Basement.” She, along with many others, enjoyed pawing through the bins and racks of clothing. It wasn’t a place where if you saw something that appealed to you it would be available in your size. You just had to get lucky. And, of course, you were luckier still if an item you spied had survived several markdowns.
For big sales, people lined up in the stairwells leading down from Summer Street, waiting for the opening bell. The most famous sale known as “The Running of the Brides,” began in 1947. Supposedly at one sale the racks of designer bridal gowns were cleared in 37 seconds. Even for less renowned sales there would be tug-of-wars over items. My own petite mother once found herself wrapped in the middle of a garment over which two women were fighting.
Until 1991 there were no fitting rooms in The Basement, and many women would unabashedly whip off their street clothes to try on a dress, skirt, or top. For years, until 1972 when escalators replaced stairs, men used to stand on the balcony and stairs , supposedly waiting for their wives, but actually ogling the shoppers in their state of undress. Ironically, even after fitting rooms were installed some women tried on clothes on the selling floor. Even the fitting rooms did not offer much privacy, being just a large room with rows of hooks and mirrors, so you always hoped you were wearing your best underwear when trying on clothes.
While in the 80’s a chain calling itself Filene’s Basement opened in many cities in the East, they were a different breed entirely. While they also carried over-stocks, closeouts, irregulars, liquidation items, and end-of-season purchases, they did not have the automatic mark-down system which so endeared “”The Basement” to Bostonians. For many it was a very sad day in 2007 when The Basement rang up its last sale and closed its doors forever.
© Dorothy C. Judd
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