Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Look Through Penney's Window...

…is a look into another world, one different in so many ways from the world we know today. For one thing, people tended to dress up – to visit relatives, to travel on a train or plane, and go shopping. Shown above, in two sidewalk-level views taken soon after its April 14, 1955 opening, is the J.C. Penney store in Plainview, New York. The interior decor is typical of new Penney stores of that era – pastel colored walls, white fascia boards with cutout-letter signage, delicately crafted displays befitting the company’s image as a leading merchant of soft goods.

As interesting as I find the architecture, interior designs and styles in scenes like this to be, I’m equally fascinated by the people in them. Were that not the case, I probably would have named this site “Retail Store Classics” or something along that line. Take the folks depicted here, for example. Whether they were paid models or actual shoppers (asked to “hold that pose”, of course) is probably unknowable and certainly irrelevant at this point in time, 56 years later. They were real people - with real lives and real hopes and dreams, long since realized or forever deferred.

The store was replaced long ago, the styles changed scores of times over since then. The youngest people in these photos would now be older than the oldest ones pictured. Just a couple of moments in time, long faded away.


  1. Civilization was certainly of higher quality back in that time...

  2. It certainly does feel like our culture is on the skids, doesn't it? Do you think these people could even fathom a day when it would be, if not proper, then acceptable to wear pajama bottoms in public?!?! You would've been considered certifiable! It's like we've given up, in a way. Kind of sad.

  3. It's been said that a kind of insanity hit the fashions immediately before the depression. If you look at all of the slinky nightgown stuff that filled the screens of the early 30s, and the contrast them with the classy looks in those pictures, it leaves one hopeful for the future. First a market crash, and then a return of class.

  4. This looks a bit like the Penney's I grew up with. It had upstairs offices that overlooked the sales floor, as well as the "downstairs store".

  5. Can anyone make out what the names are on the two signs shown in mirror image (reflecting in the glass) along the uppermost portion of the center of the first photo?

  6. Ah, Penney's! Perhaps my favorite of the big chain department stores. It seems, for my parents and grandparents (I don't know if it is a generational thing, or not) there was loyalty to specific brands or merchants. For Dad, and my grandfathers, they often expressed who they were by the cars they drove. Dad was an Oldsmobile man, his father was a Buick man, and my mom's dad was Chrysler all the way. But for the ladies, it was department stores and their goods. My mother's mother was a Penneys lover, but usually a Wards shopper (she could not always afford Penneys). My dad's mother preferred Heers, a local department store, though she did buy a lot at Sears too. Because I shopped with my mom's mom more than anyone else, I probably adopted Penney's as my favorite (where cars are concerned I always fancied Buicks!). I remember lovingly our local had escalators, and once, I got too scared to ride down. Someone had to carry me...after I had found the button under the handrail and turned the escalator off! I also liked the odd light fixtures overhanging the escalator, sort of funky 70s globes with odd shapes cut into the coverings. And the signs bore that great blue boomerang "P" logo. Our town's Penney's also had a cafe at the front, near the catalog and gift wrap counter.

  7. If they were posed, the were not well-posed, as there is much blurring of shoppers in the background, which to me indicates they are more likely basic street photography on someone's part.

  8. Man, that last paragraph was DEPRESSING. Do you realize that Pearl Harbor, for instance, was almost 70 years ago?

  9. "I remember lovingly our local had escalators, and once, I got too scared to ride down. Someone had to carry me...after I had found the button under the handrail and turned the escalator off!"

    I did the exactly the same thing to the escalator in a Montgomery Ward in the mid-'70s. I found the button that turned it off, and got curious as to what it did... so I pushed it. They had to call someone to start it up again. My dad was not too happy.

    This was the '70s era Montgomery ward, with the funky '70s decor.

  10. I miss dressing up to go places. It added a layer of specialness to the outing. The only real events people dress for now are weddings & funerals. Even most offices are fairly casual. My first job (1985) the women wore dresses or skirts with pantyhose & high heels every day.

  11. Jon – In a lot of ways it was, for sure.

    Mel – I don’t think they could have envisioned today’s culture in their wildest dreams. My grandparents on my Dad’s side both passed away in the 1990’s. As much as I miss them, I don’t think they could handle today’s culture, although by the 90’s it had already changed drastically from what is pictured here.

    George- The market crash we’ve had, the ‘return of class’ remains to be seen - it would be nice!

    Lot of fans of the “pre-code” era of movies, though!

    David – The store you visited may have opened around the same time as this one, because it was very much their “look”. I only remember the mall-based Penneys from personal experience, most of which were multi-level, but the “downstairs” weren’t designated in a special way – just a location for more departments.

    Richard - Thanks, glad you liked it! Definitely was a while ago!

    Anonymous 1 – I’ve tried to figure out what the reflected sign across the street says myself. One of the words looks like “Madway” or something like that – no clue, really! :)

    Mike – Great point - its funny how closely people used to identify with car brands, much more so then they seem to today. My grandfather owned only Pontiacs for the last 40 years of his life, and I have several relatives who only ever drove Fords, one uncle in particular who traded for a new one every year.

    Heer’s was in the Springfield, MO area, right?

    We shopped at all of the “big three” –Sears, Penneys and Wards - when I was a kid, but kind of phased Wards out the 70’s when we shifted our shopping pattern from Randhurst to Woodfield, a newer and much larger NW suburban Chicago mall. The Penneys logo with the boomerang “P” you refer to is still one of my all-time favorite retail logos.

    I never had the courage to turn off an escalator, as tempting as those buttons were to a young boy! ;)

    Dcseain – They really do look like natural, unposed photos with the possible exception of the family of four looking in through the store’s outside windows.

    Pseudo3D - Time flies. When I was a kid, Pearl Harbor was 35 years ago. I didn’t mean for it to be depressing but I understand that. What depresses me is when I think of all the questions I didn’t ask of relatives who are no longer here. I’m glad I asked them as much as I did, though.

    Anonymous 2 – I’ll bet he wasn’t happy. I’m guessing you’ve seen the various 1970’s Wards pictures on this site – funky indeed! If not, you can search the “Montgomery Ward” label to the right.

    Susan – I started on my first “real job” in 1985 as well, and I wore a coat and (skinny) tie every day. Today most of the people I call on, even top-level executives, don’t wear ties. I miss the look, but don’t miss the tight collars!

  12. Yes, Heers was a Springfield, MO company. I think it was started in 1869 and went out in 1994. After a fire, they built a large, modern for the time department store on the Public Square in Springfield, which was open til Heers went out of business. I think it was part of the Allied Dept. Store company at the time. The main Heers was a full-service dept store. It had a cafe on the mezzanine, and a fancy Garden Tea Room done in walnut. All in all, it was a fine store. Heers later opened a store in the local Battlefield Mall, and even took over a Joplin store, Newman's, when it went out in about 1987.

    A bit of a word on the Battlefield Mall, since this site is retail and this post is about department stores. Battlefield Mall was originally anchored by Wards, Penneys and Dillards. In my active memory, all three had a restaurant. Wards was a one story anchor, while Penneys and Dillards were both two stories. The mall is currently anchored by Penneys, Sears, Dillards (a women's store in the old Wards anchor, plus a men's/everything else store) and Macy's (in the original Dillards anchor). Battlefield Mall is a very strong regional mall.

  13. Penney's always looked lovely. Growing up in Reading, PA, we didn't have many Penney's nearby in the 70s. But I do remember the old one at the Park City Mall (with their huge installed skating rink in the basement) in Lancaster, PA.

    I say 'old' because the mall has totally changed. The tacky food court gives the place a more dystopian 80s look.

  14. I go back in forth on this issue in my mind all the time: on the one hand, we obviously have a better, freer, society. On the other hand, we are definitely trashier when it comes to things like pop culture and our public spaces.

    Part of it is our fault - it's nice to see people dressed up, but it's a pain to dress up everyday. A fine dining restaurant is classy, but it's also a pain when you have children in tow. It's nice to aspire to a witty, clean movie or TV show, but these days the clean ones aren't witty, and the witty ones aren't clean - and I don't relish the idea of going back to the Hayes code.

    But part of it is the fault of business too: you dressed up to shop, or fly, or take the train, because the businesses provided elegant surroundings, and expected a certain basic level of civility. That costs money, and in a Wal-Mart driven, lowest cost possible market, only the very wealthiest can afford that. So we are victims of our own cheapness - and of the fact that wages have remained stagnant for the last thirty years, so we really can't afford niceties anymore - just a preferably automated checkout counter.

  15. Think you're all making a fuss out of nothing on the dressing part.

  16. They were real people - with real lives and real hopes and dreams, long since realized or forever deferred.

    It's strange how such a short phrase can stick with a person. I'm sure this will be lingering in my mind for quite a while.

    When I look at pictures taken when I was a child, but were taken somewhere else, I always wonder what I was doing that long ago day. I also wonder about the lives of the people in the cars in the background and the like. Pictures are truly worth a thousand words.

  17. Yeah and some malls in Maryland, I've seen people in Suggies and of course screaming foul language on their phones. Yeah if only we could go back to a time when people behaved with civility.

  18. Looking Forward To Some New Posts!

  19. Mike – Thanks for that background info on Heers and on Battlefield mall. On another note, I’ve only been to Springfield a few times, but I’m impressed by how much Mid-Century architecture seems to have been preserved there.

    Stokepogue – “Dystopian 80’s look” – love that! ;)

    Catalina - Very well said on all counts. I admire the classier look of days past, when people even dressed up to attend baseball games, yet I’m glad that in my own line of work I no longer have to wear ties.

    Most “clean” entertainment falls well short where creativity is concerned, so we opt for the guilty pleasures instead.

    And there’s no question we brought the current state of the retail scene largely on ourselves. Thanks very much for the comment!

    Mike – Aw, but that’s a big part of the fun here, isn’t it? ;)

    Anonymous – Thanks for that, I really appreciate it. The phrase came to mind very soon after I saw these pictures for the first time. So much to ponder in scenes like this!

    Anonymous - It’s a rare commodity these days, but I hope someday it’ll make a comeback.

    Charles – Working on one now, thanks!

  20. It's a little off base for this post, but it had to go somewhere. Yesterday I was in the library, and wandered over to the DVD shelves, and I idly decide to check out a COLUMBO set. So I have it today when they announced Peter Falk's passing.

    What's interesting is that one of the episodes has a significant supermarket scene. The Lieutenant is tracking down a murderous motivational researcher (not an ad man, but a man who helps ad men sell--refer to the book THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS).

    There is a nearly 10-minute scene where Columbo is poking holes in the researcher's story while conferring with him at a market, where he is doing closed-circuit camera studies on shoppers. From a high mounted wall sign we know there were in the grocery section of a Gemco membership store, vintage 1973.

    To check it out, it is the "Double Exposure" episode on the Season 3 DVD.

  21. Paul – Thanks, I’ll have to check that out. I was a big Columbo (and Hawaii Five-O, and Cannon, and Barnaby Jones, and just about every other 70’s detective drama) fan, and I also liked Peter Falk in his sixties films (Mad Mad World, Robin and the 7 Hoods, etc.). He was a great talent. Ironic that you happen to check out that DVD on the day before his passing. I’ll have to seek that one out!

    I’ll bet there’s a goldmine of 60’s and 70’s L.A. street scenes in those old TV shows, featuring supermarkets, gas stations, fast food joints, and the like. I’ve seen bits and pieces about it turn up on the web, but a listing of the scenes would be a great subject for its own website, if someone hasn’t begun work on one already!

  22. I, too grew up when people were dressed up when they went shopping. My home town's population bounced between 45 & 50,000 to give you an idea of size and we had a full downtown that had 6 blocks (both sides of the street) of healthy retail and restaurants.

    I mostly remember people being dressed up to go shopping when we were out on Friday nights. I think a lot of people would do some shopping after work so I don't think that they were always dressing up to dress up but so as to not go home and then come back into the downtown.

    We did have stores that closed by 1-2PM on Saturdays and a lot of places were not open on Sunday. The mall (which for many years complemented the downtown) when it opened had hours on Saturday of 10-5 and Sundays were 12-5.

    I worked in retail for a few years recently to make some extra money. I find the open at 7 am until 10 or 11 PM to be downright offensive. Parents dragging screaming children around a store at 10 PM who should be home in bed and not in a store.

    Black Friday is the worst, the absolute insanity over it. The merchants say they are making the money that keeps them going through the year, they've been saying that for years. Here's an idea - change how you do business if you are losing money 11 months out of the year. A lot of weekends the store i worked in was open at 7 am and for 2-3 hours we had more clerks in the store than customers. Always, not once or twice but always.

    When I check out at most places now it is a gauntlet. No one says ''Hi'' anymore or asks how you are, they all want your email address, do you have our store card, are you a member of our rewards program, please go to our website and tell us what you think and on and on and on, you're not a person, you're a pair of legs with some money.

    I'd give anything to go back to the ways of the small town Main St. USA that I grew up with. There's generations of people now who don't even know what they're missing because Walmart and the mall is all they've ever know.

  23. Regularjoe – You make many excellent points here, thanks! The shopping experience has changed dramatically, and not for the better. Retail jobs had a measure of dignity that’s largely been stripped away in recent years, and in too many cases friendly customer service is the exception rather than the rule. Makes one long for the “good old days”, for sure.

    The concept of Black Friday is a fun one - families going out early to catch bargains on the day after Thanksgiving (not that I care to get up that early, mind you), but it’s turned into a yearly headline horror with people trampling on each other to be the first one in a store at 4am, or fistfighting over the last bargain-priced widescreen TV. No, thanks!

    I think you hit it right on the head about the real shame of it all, that most today “don’t even know what they’re missing” and only know today’s very limited choices – Walmart and the (in too many areas, declining) malls. As much as anything else, my goal with this website has been to show what used to be out there.

    Once again, thanks!