Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Funny What You Can Discover,
Revisiting Childhood Holiday Memories
No one ever told me I'd find history lurking in those memories of childhood Christmas gifts.
I was just finishing up some mail-order shopping, the other day, with a final token to send to my sister. It wasn't much of a gift, in and of itself, but it was the thought that counted.
The gift came from a memory of something we enjoyed from our childhood. When we were kids, we looked forward to the holiday treats sent to our family by a particular aunt and uncle. For them, it was probably one of those gift-buying-made-easy solutions to a too-long list on limited shopping time—a mail-ordered assortment of holiday goodies from a place called, if I remember correctly, the Epicurean Club. Mixed nuts, butter mints, Jordan almonds. All the usual stuff adults would put out in fancy trays and dishes for other adults to munch on during Christmas get-togethers. And there was one more treat, in another box, that seemed specially enticing to small children: miniature cakes covered in chocolate icing and colorful decorations. They were called petits fours.
I have no idea whatever happened to that mail order company whose colorful boxes were the most anticipated arrivals leading up to Christmas day at our house. I have to resort to another company to deliver those memory-laden treats, but every Christmas, I order a box to send to my sister, just because. (And, of course, a box for our household, as well.)
From my grandparents, who lived in the more practical mid-west, I knew I could expect reasonable gifts of clothing—although there might be a dress or sweater or something with just the kind of detail a young girl might find irresistible. No matter what the item of clothing might have been, I knew without a doubt that it would have been bought at a department store called Lazarus.
Growing up in New York, where people shopped at stores with trendy names like Macy's or Bloomingdale's or Saks, I always thought it odd to name a store something like Lazarus. Wasn't he the guy who got raised from the dead? Who would use a name like that for a clothing store? That would not be a characteristic I'd like to see ascribed to my business. But that is how a child would think.
There was no Lazarus store anywhere near where I lived, which most likely contributed to my sense of the oddness of such a name, too. I did know where Lazarus was, though, for any time we visited my grandparents, we would be sure to go shopping at Lazarus.
Lazarus was the downtown department store where people in Columbus, Ohio, went to shop, because...obviously...they didn't have any Macy's stores in the corn fields of Ohio. Even as an adult—when visiting in Columbus meant seeing family who had moved farther out into the suburbs—I'd still go shopping at Lazarus.
Until, that is, the day when Lazarus finally closed their doors and instantly were transformed into Macy's department stores.
How little did I know the full history of that longstanding business, until a little Christmas nostalgia for bygone holidays prompted me to look into whatever became of the Lazarus legacy.
As it turns out, the Lazarus department store started out as a men's clothiers in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It opened as a one-room store on South High Street in 1851, started on the savings of recent German Jewish immigrants Simon and Amelia Lazarus. Not long after, sons Fred and Ralph joined the fledgling enterprise, and through their marketing innovations, grew the company.
Eventually the business, through expansions and acquisitions, became one of four founding members of a holding company known as Federated Department Stores. As it turns out, that Columbus department store with the funny name—well, at least I thought so—was actually the conglomerate under which operated all the stores I thought were the "real" stores of shopping capitals like New York City: Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Abraham & Strauss, and Filene's. (Incidentally, Boston's Filene's was also founded by a German Jewish immigrant—this one from Posen, Prussia, the same province from which my own father's family emigrated, though that is not to say that my family ever started a department store.)
So, the very stores to which my childhood mind attributed silly notions turned out to actually be the head of those other companies which I saw as superior shopping choices. These, of course, are details I would never have known as a child, but find fascinating to explore in retrospect, now that I've mellowed into someone who can actually appreciate a touch of history, mixed in with my Jordan almonds and butter mints, as I hang out with friends, after shopping, over the holidays.
Above: Undated photograph of original Lazarus department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio; courtesy Wikipedia.