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What is Christmas without the department store?

In cities like Boston, these downtown temples of commerce defined the holidays—and vice versa

Boston...11/8/98...Christmas tree is raised into place at Filene's in Downtown Crossing. 11departmentstore

Globe File Photo

A Christmas tree was raised into place at Filene's department store in Downtown Crossing in this 1998 file photo.

It’s looking like Christmas in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, thanks to the wreaths, the colored lights, and the 60-foot tree at Macy’s, but the holiday decorations can’t hide a ghost at the center of it all: the cheerless facade and huge hole in the ground that used to be Filene’s.

Today, Christmas shopping for most of us means going online or driving out to a mall. But not too long ago, it was a different kind of experience. In Boston, it meant a trip downtown to Filene’s or Jordan Marsh, the department stores that would try to outdo each other in winter-themed window displays and oversized wreaths. It meant riding escalators up and down as you tried to decide between a scarf and a punch bowl for your sister or between a sweater and a camera for your dad.

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For a century, department stores — real department stores, the ones built by local families, that dominated city centers and could take up entire blocks — ruled downtowns the way they ruled the holiday season. They felt like part of a city’s infrastructure, as much a part of the urban fabric as the parks and the libraries.

Shopping hasn’t vanished from American life, of course, and smaller-scale department stores still exist, mainly inside malls. But there was something about the downtown department store that can’t be captured at a mall, let alone a website. It functioned as a crossroads of urban life, a quasi-public space that blurred class divisions and proudly saw itself as part of the city around it. The downtown department store strove to be a civic institution as grand and as original as an art museum or public library — an ambition hard to detect in their latter-day descendants at the malls or the chain discount stores that now drive holiday retailing.

Behind all those columns and marble counters, though, department stores were always more fragile than they looked. “Even in the best of times it was all the industry could do to hold its own,” said Richard Longstreth, a historian at George Washington University, who traced the rise of the great American department stores in an appropriately lavish book, “The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960.”

Today, as older Bostonians still think back to the Enchanted Village in Jordan Marsh, the surviving department stores keep a hand in holiday celebrations: Macy’s, whose parent company bought Jordan Marsh and closed Filene’s, has its name on the “enchanted trolley” that Mayor Thomas M. Menino rides through Boston to attend tree-lightings. In the eyes of Longstreth and other historians, it’s only appropriate that we connect Christmas and department stores so closely: Even in their heyday, it turns out, they needed the holidays as much as the holidays needed them.

The classic department store evolved from the humble dry goods stores of the 19th century, which offered clothing, fabrics, and housewares as staple items rather than fashion statements. As consumer demand rose, and cities grew, many turned into larger emporiums modeled on European shopping palaces such as Harrods in London, with vast choices in goods and amenities for customers. Two developments were essential to their character: the idea of putting merchandise on display and allowing customers to select their own purchases instead of asking a counter attendant; and the invention of escalators and elevators, which allowed the stores to expand upward.

The early years of the 20th century saw a wave of grand openings across the country, with department stores becoming a kind of proxy competition between cities. Marshall Field’s unveiled a 12-story store in Chicago in 1902, and President Taft dedicated the 12-story Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia in 1911. In Detroit, Hudson’s kept expanding until it reached nearly 2 million square feet in the late 1920s, second only to Macy’s in New York — and encouraged the New York comparisons by starting its own Thanksgiving Day parade.

“People took a lot of pride in their store,” as if it were a sports team, says Jan Whitaker, author of “Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.”

In downtown Boston, Filene’s opened its Washington Street store in 1912; Jordan Marsh had already anchored itself as an upscale retailer on the same street way back in 1861. Hartford had G. Fox & Co. (taken over by Filene’s in 1992, then turned into Macy’s), Providence had the Shepard Co. (which closed in 1974, one of the first big-name downtown stores to vanish), and Portland, Maine, had the flagship of the regional Porteous chain.

Frank Wing/Globe Staff/File

In 1969, Robert and Patricia Mesko looked at the Christmas window display of Filene's in Downtown Crossing.

The stores seized prime locations in downtown areas, and, in their earliest days, were often the tallest structures for miles around. In their quest to lengthen the time customers remained in their buildings, they added restrooms, lunch counters, and reading lounges, as well as check-cashing windows and post offices. In contrast to “five-and-dimes” like Woolworth’s (the Walmart of its day), the downtown department store aspired to be a cultural center, hosting art exhibits and concerts in addition to displaying the latest fashions.

With their remarkable spaciousness, the new stores came to serve as quasi-public spaces in many cities. In Erie, Pa., “Let’s meet under the clock” referred to the ceiling fixture in the Art Deco lobby of the six-floor Boston Store, built in 1931 and vacated in 1979. (Now there’s a nostalgia-themed pub called Under the Clock there.) “Meet you at the eagle” still refers to a 10-foot-tall bronze statue in the atrium at the Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) in Philadelphia.

There were nooks and alcoves that made it easy for kids to get lost, accidentally or deliberately; one could fantasize about hiding in a bathroom, waiting for the store to close, and spending the night in a mad dash to play with every toy, lie on every couch, and sample every candy in the gourmet shop. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a musical —  “Evening Primrose,” written for television and broadcast in 1966 — about a poet who hides out in a department store after closing and discovers a secret society that comes alive at night.

As grand and ambitious as they seemed, department stores also represented something deeply democratic about American society. Like the movie palaces built during the 1920s and 1930s, the department store offered luxurious surroundings to all.

“Department stores in the United States democratized luxury,” wrote Stetson University law professor Mark D. Bauer in a 2008 paper called “The Softer Side of Antitrust: Why Department Stores Matter,” explaining, “All women were ‘ladies’ to department store staff and the principle of first come, first served allowed a servant to be waited upon before an heiress . . . .Obsequious acts, such as greeting shoppers, accepting returns, and treating all equally, regardless of position in society, were elevated to the level of public service.”

Customers “could absorb information about goods just by wandering through the store,” writes historian Gunther Barth in his 1982 book “City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth Century America,” “without revealing their ignorance as could have happened in an exclusive shop where a haughty sales clerk might have taken any inquiry as an admission of social inferiority.”

At no time were these welcoming characteristics more important than in the run-up to Christmas.

In Boston, the holiday season meant a trip to the Enchanted Village, a lavish display of toys and animatronics that took over an entire upper floor at Jordan Marsh. (The remnants are now on display during the holidays at Jordan’s Furniture — no relation — in Avon.) Cleveland had its own version of Santa Claus, called Mr. Jingeling, who held court at the Halle Brothers department store until it closed in 1982. Until the store closed in 1991, Atlantans went to Rich’s to admire the 70-foot Christmas tree on the roof and to let their kids ride Priscilla the Pink Pig, a train that went round and round the toy department.

In moments of nostalgia, it’s tempting to think of such holiday traditions as a public service performed by the stores. But, of course, they did it out of necessity. Christmas matters too much financially for stores to take their customers for granted: About 25 percent of a nondiscount department store’s annual sales occur in November and December, according to government data.

The spectacular holiday events fit easily into the “bigger is better” philosophy of many department stores. But in fact, that pressure to expand was part of the trouble. As early as 1926, Longstreth writes, a US Chamber of Commerce official made a speech warning of downtown department stores getting so “top heavy” as a result of their drive to become bigger, taller, and more ornate that operating costs would erase profits. (Presciently, he recommended opening “smaller units” away from downtown instead.)

But adding more and more floors, or installing Christmastime train lines, could not keep business flowing in the long run. Big cities were emptying out; many of the options that gave department stores an edge over no-frills retailers were getting less popular. Customers didn’t need delivery service when they had cars, women didn’t need tailoring when off-the-rack clothes became better fitting and more stylish, and people didn’t bring watches in to be repaired when it was cheaper to buy new ones. And when shoppers started turning their backs on American downtowns, even the most up-to-date retailer couldn’t survive “the dead look of a huge store with no people in it,” says Whitaker.

This kind of change is inevitable in retailing, of course, but department stores have left a particular hole in the cities where they once stood. Well-tended parks such as the Boston Public Garden give city dwellers the temporary sensation of living on a country estate. Similarly, the department store attracted people because it “heightened the illusion of shared luxury among the shoppers,” writes Barth — a quality that seems shockingly egalitarian in the economically segregated stores of today.

The revitalization of some major cities, including Boston, is bringing back crowds to downtown areas, but both Longstreth and Whitaker doubt that this will prompt a revival of the big-scale department store. Not only are their tailoring departments and other extra services more superfluous than ever, but the takeover of local stores by national chains has erased the differences between the downtown stores and the suburban malls that helped put them out of business. As chain takeovers put downtown stores under the same management in one city after another, “That accelerated the feeling of ‘Why should we go there?’” says Longstreth.

Today the grand emporiums of old have become a nostalgia fetish, much like long-distance passenger railroads and “Mad Men”-era office style. You can find plenty of websites devoted to photos and loving descriptions of bygone stores, with lots of attention given to their Christmas events and decorations. They include Whitaker’s Department Store History; Shopping Days in Retro Boston (“a place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories”); and the Department Store Museum, which posts lengthy store directories from the past and asks on its homepage, “Why are we not good enough for such a gamut of retail options today?”

Perhaps Amazon.com is today’s department store, with JPGs and other graphics replacing automated window displays, and customer reviews subbing for the actual conversation among shoppers. It may be no more viable, in the long run, than the department stores were. But it won’t go broke from hiring Santa Clauses and building toy trains.

Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor living in Malden.
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