A whole sub-set of books in the Jaffe Collection might be entitled World of Women, because there are books in the collection that refer specifically to women’s lives and women’s interests. There are at least two that are actually in the shape of women’s handbags: one of them is Le Sac á Main, issued as a special edition of the French avant-garde periodical ‘Plages.’ The other, a new acquisition, is special because its author, Elizabeth Locke, was an early and valued colleague at the Collection. An added fillip, of course, is that the department store was Arthur Jaffe’s family business!
This book is both a tribute and an aide memoire. It’s a fabric ‘pocketbook’ fastened with a large golden button. Its cover is fancifully pieced together from prints on fabrics that range from the polka-dotted to the comedic: from the palatial exterior of Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia to Felix the Cat in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The cover is lined in a serendipitous single fabric, however, that gives hints about good taste and fashion.
Locke’s book used digital images printed on cotton and then accordion-bound to present curious items like ‘Filene’s Health Menu’ (a cold glass of Kraut Juice cost 25 cents) and a Gimbels advertisement that trumpeted ‘Shop Gimbels and SAVE; Shop Gimbels and RAVE,’ along with contemporary photographs from the stores’ heydays. Blanket-stitching holds the sized pages together and the whole can be spread out. The images are interspersed with quotations from historians of commerce and store management, detailing the sagas and purposes of these “’large retail store[s] organized into departments offering a variety of merchandise.”
I had forgotten how central to my youth were these emporia. They were city landmarks as well as resources; they bespoke elegance and comfort from their fanciful window displays to the white-gloved operators who moved us from one expansive floor to another. People visited them like fairs, as much for entertainment as out of necessity.
Looking at Elizabeth Locke’s clever book coupled with the miraculous advantage of access to the internet took me back to Forbes & Wallace and Steigers, to G. Fox and Company where I worked every summer I was in college, and to Filene’s, where I worked in term-time. I even traveled back to when I was ‘Judy of Sage-Allen,’ selling on the radio the BlueBell mattresses and Princess Peggy house dresses of that establishment.
If you recognize the above references, you know the New England I am from, as surely as if you mentioned I. Magnin and Gumps, I could place you in Northern California. Millions of Americans from the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries were and are indentified by these unique and specific geographic markers. I am surprised as I write to see how thoroughly that very local aspect of commerce has disappeared. It is a treat to have Elizabeth Locke’s one-of-a-kind book to remind me.