One of the more enjoyable bits of research for my novel included a hilarious memoir written by Emily Kimbrough about her first job working at Marshall Field and Comapny, which I read to get a feel for what it was like to work at Field’s in the 1920s. Some of you might remember Emily Kimbrough from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, coauthored with Cornelia Otis Skinner, about their youthful adventures in Europe. That book was eventually made into a movie.
As Emily remembered it, “In November  we were back in America, I in Chicago because I lived there, and she in Chicago because she had a part in a play. The play was called Bristol Glass and it was produced at the Blackstone Theater. Cornelia was an actress, and I, as far as I could see, was going to be nothing at all.”
With her parents’ support, Emily applied for a job at Field’s through a family friend. Completely untutored in the ways of business, here is Emily’s account of how she dressed for her job interview, from the memoir titled Through Charley’s Door:
“I had selected for my interview a dress I had made in Paris. I had made only one and it had turned out to be unusual. This was largely due to the fact that I had selected a material, for reasons not clear to myself, that was, I think, designed for a couch covering–heavy velour with a raised pattern, in dull gold. My intention had been to copy a model I’d bought at a sale of Jenny’s. I’d laid the Jenny dress on top of the material and sheared around it, but no one had ever explained about seams and making allowances for them. When the seams of my dress were sewn, I could get into the garment only easing it down over my figure, as if I were putting a case on an umbrella. The only adornment I’d permitted was a belt I’d bought at the Galeries Lafayette. It was of heavy metal representing silver, studded with large, very imitation turquoises. Since my shape at that time was very akin to that of an umbrella, it afforded no natural resting place for the belt. Loops had proved to be impractical because the weight of the belt sagging on them pulled out the seams at those points where the loops were sewn, and each restitching of the seams made the dress a little tighter. Left unsupported, the belt, without any warning, would coast rapidly to the ground, shackling me.
“I had learned to forestall this ignominy by inserting a thumb under the belt and resting my hand on one hip. Since this was the position affected by the models I had seen parading in the Salon of a big dressmaker where I had been taken once by a stylish friend, I had quite a fancy for the stance, even unprompted by necessity. I told myself in the mirror that walking this way made me look very blase.
“I had not yet found an occasion ripe for displaying the walk nor the dress to my parents. But applying for a job at Marshall Field’s seemed to me a very ripe occasion.
“The dress had no sleeves, because I did not know how to make them, but I was happy in the addition to my costume of very short gloves. The combination of short or no sleeves and short gloves had just come into style in Paris. I hoped to surprise Marshall Field’s with it.
“The hat that accompanied this costume was of golden velvet with a dark brown ostrich plume curled round the crown. I’d bought it in Paris at a little shop not far from our pension and, encouraged by the proprietress, added a veil, cream color with large brown spots. I tied this very tight over my face, because it seemed to me that to have my eyelashes caught in its meshes was seductive. The end of my nose, however, caught the brunt of this pressure, and carried for some time after the veil was removed a conspicuously indented ring.
“Over this ensemble I was forced to wear to Field’s my old muskrat coat, but I planned to leave this at the checking counter immediately inside the Washington Street entrance to the store. It did not occur to me that Mother would not like the costume; I was only afraid she might consider it too dressy for 8:30 A.m., a point of view I held to be old-fashioned.”
More about Miss Kimbrough’s interview to come!
I’m sure there’s a good reason why people no longer tap dance, but I can’t for the life of me imagine what it is.
Here’s another choice tidbit from my as-yet-unpublished novel, for those who’ve asked about it.
(Backstory: On a visit to Chicago in 1925, Marjorie meets a man named Peter Bachmann who is the spitting image of her first love, Jack, who died in the Great War. She takes a job at the Marshall Field department store largely so she can spy on Peter, who works there too, and find out whether or not he is truly Jack. Sometimes she’s sure he is, sometimes she’s sure he isn’t. She is sporting a new look, having let her friend talk her into getting her hair bobbed and shortening her skirt. Regardless, she has no business flirting with Peter, as she is still engaged to Richard back home.)
More than a week passed before I saw Peter Bachmann again, even though I looked for him every day in the cafeteria. I wanted him to see my new look, so he’d know I wasn’t an old-fashioned prude even though I didn’t go to speakeasies. I wanted to show him I could be a modern girl. A modern, chic girl. A modern, chic girl with a chilly neck and kneecaps.
I also wanted to find out more about him, to reassure myself once and for all that he was not some new-and-improved, resurrected version of Jack Lund.
Eventually I lost patience and casually strolled over to the men’s section, trying to look for him without looking like I was looking. Sensing his presence before I actually saw him, I carefully scrutinized a silk necktie.
I glanced up, feigning surprise. “Why, good afternoon, Mr. Bachmann.” My insides did a little jig.
“I almost didn’t recognize you.” He gave a low whistle that made me blush. “New haircut. Nice.” I self-consciously touched the back of my neck. He cocked his head. “You look so different. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a short-hair kind of girl.”
“Is that so?” I retorted. “What, pray tell, is a short-hair kind of girl?”
“Oh, you know,” he said. “All sleek and modern, on-the-go, devil-may-care . . .”
I crossed my unsleek arms over my unsleek chest. “Sounds like a racehorse. ‘Two bucks on Devil-May-Care in the ninth’.”
He laughed. “I’d bet on you any day.” My heart turned a backflip. Then he gestured to the neckties. “These are our finest ties. One hundred percent silk.” He paused. “Are you shopping for a present? A gift for your fiancé, perhaps?”
“No.” I blushed. Why did I have to be so darn quick to tell him I was engaged? “I mean, yes, it is a present. For my, um, father.”
“Of course. Father’s Day is coming up.”
“Yes. That’s it,” I shouted, startling both of us. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? President Coolidge had recently declared the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day. What a perfect excuse—I mean, reason—to buy a gift for Pop.
Peter flashed a dimple. Jack had a dimple! “Your father is a lucky man, then. Here, let me help you make a selection. What color suit does he normally wear?”
At the moment I had trouble recollecting Pop wearing anything other than his scruffy dressing gown or his tattered flannel hedge-trimming shirt. Even at the store he tended to fidget with his tie, whisking it off at the first opportunity. I fingered a silk foulard. “Maybe a necktie isn’t the best choice for him after all.”
Don’t you remember my Pop? I longed to say. If you were really Jack, you’d remember him.
Peter nodded. “Perhaps I could recommend a nice men’s cologne then. We’ve a wide selection right over here.”
“Not bay rum, I hope,” I joked, referring to our earlier conversation when he’d poked fun at bay rum. He looked at me blankly. I decided it was safer not to say anything more for the time being and busied myself sniffing cologne testers and trying not to babble.
A few other shoppers floated into view. “I’ll be right with you,” Peter called to them.
“I mustn’t take up any more of your time,” I said, thrusting one of the cologne bottles at him. “I’ll take this one.”
“A fine choice,” he said. “Your father will be pleased.”
I watched his hands as he wrote up the sales slip. He had elegant hands, for a man. As I recalled, Jack’s hands had always been rough and a little grimy under the nails. Mechanic’s hands.
When I saw the figure Peter had written on the slip, I gasped a little. It hadn’t occurred to me to check the price. I swallowed hard. “Does—does that include my employee discount?”
“Yes, it does.”
“Oh. Uh, don’t you need to have the manager to approve an employee sale?”
“I am the manager.”
“Oh. Well, all right.” I pulled some bills from my purse and wracked my brain for something brilliant to say to hold his attention. “Any word yet on when the food drive committee will meet?”
So much for brilliant.
“Probably next week. I’ll let you know.”
“Oh. That’s fine.” Another awkward pause that I struggled to fill. “You know, green beans are always good.”
“Canned green beans. They’re always good for a food drive, because they go so well with holiday dinners, but they’re also good in the summertime, and most everyone likes them.” My voice trailed off. He fixed his eyes steadily on mine. The corners of his mouth tightened as if he were suppressing a smile.
After a long moment he said, “Well, we’ll certainly give green beans some serious consideration.” He slipped the tissue-wrapped bottle into a little dark-green bag and handed it to me. I swore his fingers lingered on mine an extra moment. Or maybe I just wanted them to.
“Miss Corrigan,” he said, “I hope you don’t think I’m being too bold, but I’m wondering if you might accompany me to an event on the eighteenth.”
My breath caught in my throat. “What?”
Maybe my new haircut had worked its magic, and he was asking me for a date.
“Not a date, of course,” he said quickly. “I realize you’re already spoken for.”
“Yes,” I sighed. “Spoken for.”
“It’s a business function,” he continued briskly. “Once a quarter, Mr. Simpson invites a group of managers to the South Shore Country Club for an evening reception. We wouldn’t need to stay long. We could grab a late dinner afterward, if you’d like.”
If I’d like. My brain dipped and spun. “It sounds lovely, but isn’t it against the rules? I mean, it says in the manual that employees are not supposed to—you know—fraternize.”
He chuckled. “I promise you, no fraternization will be involved. It’s completely work-related. I just think it would be a nice way for you to meet some of the managers here, since you’re new, and I would appreciate the company. The country club is a sight to behold if you’ve never been there. What do you say?”
I ignored the red neon Warning sign in my head. After all, this was work-related. Just an innocent work-related flirta—occasion.
“All right,” I said. We arranged a time to meet, and as I floated back to Ladies’ Nightwear, even Mrs. Cross’s pointed stares at her wristwatch didn’t bother me in the least.
Nonetheless, early the next morning, well before Peter’s shift was due to begin, I discreetly returned the bottle of cologne to the men’s department and got my money back.”
I haven’t given mall retailer Abercrombie & Fitch any notice in years. It’s hard to pay notice when one’s eyes are firmly averted, so as not to be seared by the company’s advertising campaigns. But I was made aware of them once again through this blog post. Apparently there’s some sort of controversy swirling around a recent campaign to give Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to the homeless. What appears to be an altruistic gesture may be something less generous at heart.
My concern in this post isn’t to jump into the controversy, but to lament the demise of a great company that took a sorrowful turn somewhere down the line.
Did you know that, years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the most elegant stores around? Hard to imagine, right? In an older post at the delightful site The Vintage Traveler, you can learn more about this venerable store and view some wonderful old catalog pages, like this one:
“Before it was just another mall brand, Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the most famous sportsmen’s outfitters. In 1910 they were located in Reade Street, in New York City, and from all accounts, the store was itself amazing. There were tents set up in the store, along with all the necessary accessories for a proper camp (including a campfire). And in 1910 they became the first store to offer sporting attire for women along with that for men.”
Read the whole post here.
I can’t help but be thankful that Messrs. Abercrombie and Fitch aren’t around to see what has become of their store and their good names.
In our mountainside garden, I was thrilled yesterday to see the first strawberry blossom. Strawberries are not far behind! In fact, the markets are full of them, if I’m too impatient to wait for my own crop to grow.
Stepping back to 1917, here’s our gal Bettina’s favorite strawberry recipe, shared with her friend Charlotte in the enchanting book A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron, illustrated by Ethelind Ridgway.
“I’ve been to the market, Bettina,” said Charlotte, “and I thought I’d stop here just a moment to rest.”
“Come in,” said Bettina, “and set that heavy basket down. Why didn’t you leave it for Frank to bring?”
“Because I needed the things for dinner.”
“What did you get?”
“Oh, the same old fresh vegetables,” said Charlotte wearily. “A month ago they seemed so wonderful–strawberries, asparagus, new potatoes and all–but there are no new ways to cook them! One day I cream the asparagus and the next day I serve it on toast.”
“Do you ever make asparagus salad?” asked Bettina. “We are very fond of it. Cold cooked asparagus is good with any kind of salad dressing, but we like best a very simple kind that I often make–oil and lemon juice and cheese.”
“Cheese?” echoed Charlotte in surprise.
“Yes, cottage cheese and Roquefort cheese are equally good. And, Charlotte, if you want some delicious strawberry desserts–”
“Oh, I do! We’re so tired of shortcake and plain strawberries!”
I know several good strawberry dishes. Come, let me show you one that I made today!”
BETTINA’S STRAWBERRY TAPIOCA
3 Tbs granulated tapioca
4 TBS sugar
1-1/4 cup hot (boiling) water
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
Wash and hull the strawberries, and cut in halves with a spoon. Add the cup of sugar, mix well, and set in a cold place. Mix the tapioca, the 4 Tbs. sugar, and the salt. Add the boiling water slowly. Cook ten minutes in the upper part of a double boiler. Add the vanilla. When cold, add the strawberries. Serve very cold with plain or whipped cream.
Are you a strawberry fan? What’s your favorite way to serve strawberries? Please share it in a comment!
Kitty Foyle, a 1940 film starring Ginger Rodgers based on a novel by Christopher Morley, is a classic in the genre of working-women books and films. Raised amid the Irish working-class in Philadelphia, secretary Kitty follows her heart instead of her head and falls in love with her blue-blood boss–a recipe for trouble in an era much more class-conscious than ours. While her romantic life is rocky from the start, Kitty’s star rises in the business world. While I haven’t yet read the book, the film is a gem worth seeking out for a glimpse at what it was like to be a working woman in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ginger Rodgers won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Kitty Foyle. The film was so popular that it even spurred demand for a style known as the “Kitty Foyle” dress, a practical, comfortable dress with contrasting collar and cuffs:
I don’t wear vivid red lipstick. I wish I could, but I don’t think it’s a very good look on me. But that didn’t stop me from oohing and aahing over the 1920s collection from Besame Cosmetics. I like the Noir Red shade best. It reminds me of the fictional “High Society Scarlet” mentioned in my novel–the favorite shade of Marjorie’s flapper roommate, Dot. Either of those vivid reds would look well on Dot, with her strong coloring. (Yes, as a matter of fact Dot does bear an astonishing resemblance to Louise Brooks! )
In the 1920s, wearing makeup became acceptable for the first time for women were weren’t acting on the stage. While their older sisters may have dusted on a bit of powder or pinched their cheeks to bring up the color, some Roaring Twenties women took makeup to ghoulish extremes, showing that they were, indeed, wearing makeup in public–and how! Companies like Helena Rubinstein, Maybelline, Max Factor, and Revlon made names for themselves in that decade, due to the popularity of their products.
Not only were lips colored dark, but they were also drawn into an exaggerated shape called “bee stung” or “cupids-bow,” shown here on actress Evelyn Brent:
Another time period that favored strong red lips was the 1940s. My mom recalled, as a teenager, going with her sisters to have a professional photograph taken as a gift for their mother. The photographer advised the girls to wipe off their dark red lipstick, because it would make their lips look black in the black-and-white photograph.
What’s your preference for lip color: dark, bright, pale–or nothing more colorful than Chapstick?
Got your spring cleaning done yet, Sparklers? Here’s a delightful passage from A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (published 1917), included in a chapter titled “In Housekeeping Time.” Bettina’s recipe for banana salad is at the end. Enjoy, and happy housekeeping!
“‘Goodness gracious, Ruth!’ said Bettina. ‘Surely it can’t be half-past five already!’
‘Yes it is, Bettina. Exactly that!’ said Ruth, glancing at her tiny wrist watch. ‘But Bob won’t be home till six, will he?”
“No, but I want to have dinner ready when he arrives. You see, as I told you before, I simply shouldn’t have gone to Mary’s this afternoon. My curtains are down and my rugs are up, and my house isn’t an attractive place for a man to come home to, to say the least. And then to come straight from a party and give Bob a pick-up lunch instead of a full mean, will be–”
“The last straw? What had you planned for lunch?”
“Well, I have some soup all made, ready to reheat. Then I think I’ll have banana salad, tea, and hot baking-powder biscuits.”
“De-licious!” said Ruth, with a grin. “I believe I’ll invite myself to stay!”
“Good! You can make the salad while I’m mixing the biscuits. I also have some chocolate cookies, and I’ll open a jar of canned peaches–”
“And I’ll be so bright and scintillating that old Bobbie won’t even miss the curtains and the rugs!”