In the early 1960s, shopping was such a special occasion that my entire family went on purposeful expeditions only several times a year: one was during the inevitable "back to school" rush, and another always happened several weeks before Christmas.
My sister and I were never under the care of a babysitter, so on the chosen Friday night, we waited for Dad to arrive home from work with great anticipation. We gulped a dinner of something like macaroni and cheese with canned green beans. Right after, Mom struggled to get a coat and hat onto my fidgety little sister, and then checked for the third time that the shopping list was actually in her purse. Finally, we piled into Dad's red and white '57 Ford Ranch Wagon for a drive into town.
Becky sat sandwiched in the front seat between Dad and Mom, while I held on tight in the back seat and pressed my nose to the window, watching as headlights, taillights, and streetlights whizzed by. Magnified through rain drops on the glass, the color and sparkle of nighttime lights added to my holiday spirit.
We lived in the Richmond Annex along Carlson Boulevard, which consisted of homes built on landfill during the post World War II building boom. Woolworth's on Macdonald Avenue was the store of choice when Mom came out to Richmond from Minnesota in 1945. Department stores quickly became popular in the post war years, though Macy's was a little too expensive for Mom's taste. Once in a great while, we ventured into Oakland to visit the tall Sears Roebuck building, mostly to pick up catalog orders.
Macdonald Avenue at night, Richmond, 1959. Richmond Street Scenes
For us, Christmas gift-buying usually meant driving through the rain and the dark into downtown Richmond to shop at Montgomery Ward. After Dad found a parking spot, we climbed up the few short steps to enter the store and get out of the rain. Inside, the overheated department store immediately made us feel uncomfortable: our wool coats began to steam and smell, and our wet shoes clicked and slipped against highly polished hardwood floors. The foreign sounds of elevators bells and far-away voices on the intercom captured my attention as we wove around islands of neatly piled clothing and other shoppers. In the back of the store was a special area set up for Christmas, and we made a beeline for that before my sister's attention span had a chance to wane.
Mom had been formulating what to buy for weeks, but she always took my sister and I to have a look at some of the things we'd been drooling over in the catalog, known as the"Wish Book," all autumn. Though tempted at what we saw, we never begged; we were taught restraint. Even so, my active little sister found it quite difficult to keep from touching all of the glittery treats among the displays, because she loved everything. But, greedy? Never! We could point and sigh and smile and hope, and that was all we ever needed to do.
After World War II, Montgomery Ward had become the third-largest department store chain. In 1946, the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York City, exhibited the Wards catalog alongside Webster's dictionary as one of 100 American books chosen for their influence on life and culture of the people. The brand name of the store became embedded in the popular American consciousness and was often called by the nickname "Monkey Wards," both affectionately and derisively.
In the 1950s, the company was slow to respond to general movement of the American middle class to suburbia. While its old rivals Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's, and Dillard's established new anchor outlets in the growing number of suburban shopping malls, the top executives thought such moves as too expensive, sticking to their downtown and main street stores until the company had lost too much market share to compete with its rivals. Its catalog business had begun to slip by the 1960s...
Santa was in the store, of course, but after several unsuccessful attempts to get my sister to sit on his lap, Mom gave up. Becky was terrified by certain things, and one of them just happened to be Santa. Santa Claus in storybooks was a grand idea, but the reality of Santa-in-the-flesh was just too unsettling. I am reminded of a time when Becky was about three years old and Mom came home with new, dark-rimmed glasses. Oh, how Becky screamed and screamed - she was inconsolable! Poor Mom had to schedule another appointment and select something a bit less scary. You would never think that my sister, as a grown woman, would be into horror movies and collectibles, now would you?
When the tour of the toys was completed and any grumbles had been quieted, Mom took us to look at clothing - the huge, dubious wasteland that made up most of the department store. That was Dad's cue to sneak back to the toy area and buy what Mom had instructed. I always knew what was happening, but it was more fun to pretend that I didn't.
Mom struggled to keep my sister in tow while searching for the perfect flannel shirt for Grampa, the tights Becky needed to match her cute holiday dress, or linens for Aunt Mabel. Afterwards, we all piled back into the station wagon for the drive home, grateful to be in the cool, evening air once again. The purchased gifts were secretly stowed in the back of the wagon, safe in the dark from prying eyes and distanced from curious fingers.
While Mom and Dad recovered from sticker shock and the stress of another holiday buying expedition, the family headed home to the little white stucco house with red wood shutters in the Richmond Annex. We all anticipated another happy Christmas, but, we had made Montgomery Ward even happier, I'm sure.