Tuesday, July 2, 2013

An outing to Marshall Field's circa 1911

I love the BritCom “Are You Being Served?” I must have watched each episode dozens of times, and I still enjoy every minute. Between the subtle innuendos and the glimpses of how a more formal department store functioned, it’s my idea of great entertainment.

One episode in particular never fails to amuse me. There’s a scene where the head of the Men’s Dept. finds the “floor walker” Captain Peacock coming to work wearing a bowler hat. He chides him, saying that only heads of dept. are allowed to wear bowlers, second in command must wear a homburg and the sales clerks must wear trilbys or caps. Of course, Captain Peacock then turns around and scolds the salesmen as they arrive wearing “improper” hats. Such formality is so quaint today as to be humorous.

This episode spurred me to find out if the department stores in our country ever operated this way. Some research into a department store icon—Marshall Field’s in Chicago—assured me that this was the case, but only in the early 20th century. Goods were stored behind mahogany counters and the customers were treated like royalty. You had several lavish restaurants to choose from, in addition to a whole host of other services. Stretch and I had a fun time imagining ourselves having an outing to Marshall Field’s around 1911.

First, we would stop in the dress department where I would choose a custom-made outfit from one of the models showcasing the latest fashions for me. Then we would go up to the reading and writing room, where I would relax with my choice of one of the latest issues of popular magazines while Stretch penned a note to his friend Jenn on the free stationary and then went  into the Silence Room and caught a quick nap on a comfy couch.

The Narcissus Tea Room
After our brief respite, it would be lunch time. I would go off to the Narcissus Tea Room, frequented almost exclusively by women, where I would meet some friends like Jenn, Rose, and Wanda for a relaxing meal and some great chatting. The room took its name from the bronze statue atop the huge fountain in the center. It was based on a statue found at Pompeii that was identified incorrectly as Narcissus. It fit the theme of the room, whose décor was inspired by ancient Pompeii—including chair designs taken from a Greek vase. (I think I’ll order the chicken croquettes for 45 cents. Any of my friends want to splurge on the Chicken Livers and Calves’ Brains Baked in Cream for 65 cents?)

Stretch would head off for the Men’s Grill in the men’s store annexed to the main store. No women were allowed in this restaurant, so he could dine in manly (bearly?) fashion with his friends Paul and Harold. The décor of this restaurant was heavy walnut furniture and table-cloth free tables.

Stretch would offer to pick up the tab as they enjoyed an after-dinner brandy cordial. (I’m not sure they’re going to be amenable to accepting those tiny Stretch dollars in 1911, so Paul and Harold, I’m afraid you’re going to get stuck paying the bill!)

Finally, I would meet up with Stretch again in the Men’s store where he was just completing his purchase of a bowler hat. . .

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