Cleveland 1956

Higbee's First Floor at Christmas

The day had been anticipated and planned for weeks. There were specific instructions on times, places, and acceptable behaviors. Money had been saved, restaurants had been discussed, and each minute was taken.

Mother was going to NEOTA day, and for the first time,I was to have the day to myself in downtown Cleveland.

It was obligatory for teachers in Ohio to do an in-service day in October. For those in Akron, this meant coming to the Cleveland Public Auditorium, catching the eye of other teachers in their building so as to be authentically “seen,” sitting somewhere in the balcony and catching a snooze. There was no attendance taken. This was all on the honor system and, back then, the honor system was sacred.

Mom and I had made the trips to Cleveland before. We’d shopped together and we’d visited my aunts Isie and Nora who lived in a basement apartment there. We’d gone to the Zoo, Halle’s, Higbee’s, May’s, and Little Italy. But going to Cleveland from Akron was a big city treat made maybe once a year. So when I planned my day alone, I had visions of the vastness of the downtown department stores already in mind.

We parked in a deck somewhere near the auditorium, and then I walked the carefully planned route to Public Square. From there I ducked indoors to the warmth of Higbee’s and stood for a second looking at the chandeliers and jewelry cases. I felt like I was in a set How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

How to Marry a Millionaire

Remember what it was to be 14 and want everything? You felt you must have the matching bag and shoes. You physically NEEDED to have another pearl necklace because the one you owned was not a chocker. And who could go to school without the right saddle shoes or cashmere sweater?

Down the rows of jewelry I’d browse. The big diamond rings and matron jewelry didn’t interest me. In fact, I wasn’t shopping for accessories at all. But with a whole day ahead of me, I felt I had time to be frivolous.

I made my way past hats, hosiery, and shoes to the wooden escalators and up to the floor with Junior’s clothes. I wanted skirts and sweaters. I’d baby sat for weekends and probably had an amazing $30 for a new fall wardrobe. Mom probably threw in another $20. I don’t remember exactly.

We wore wool-pleated skirts to the knee then. I found a lot I liked and was amazed that they had so much selection in Cleveland from which to choose. Why not Akron? Never mind. I was here. I had money. I would buy!

I found two skirts I adored and a sweater to match one of them. But before I took the awesome plunge of buying, I knew I had to do due diligence and shop at May’s and even Halle’s after lunch.

Mom and I had a meeting time for lunch Higbee’s Silver Grille on the top floor. I was too old for it now, but when I was younger I would order the child’s lunch that came in a little box in the shape of a refrigerator or similar child’s toy. At that age, it was all about the box and not the sandwich inside. My mother also wore a hat and gloves  downtown then. But now that was in the past.

Higbee's Silver Grille

I’m sure I wore my Mother’s ear off about my shopping. It’s for sure that she didn’t tell me about her morning since it was boring for both of us. She’d munch through her perpetual diet of salads and I ate my grilled cheese and pie. I was a beanpole needing fattening and we didn’t know about cholesterol then.

After constant reminders of when and where to meet, Mom returned to her meetings. I headed down the elevator and outside into the crispness of the late autumn afternoon. Across the street was May’s with the same massive ceilings, countless floors, and mind numbing choices as Higbee’s.

I’ve always found that afternoons of shopping are never as productive as mornings. The afternoon clothes are not as chic, not as affordable, not as stylish, and not as perfectly fitting as morning clothes. My shopping gene was wearing out, the clock was ticking, and what would happen if I (gasp!) ran out of time before I spent my money???

Quickly I returned to Higbee’s, got up to the third floor, found my skirts and sweater in size 8 and purchased them in a big bag with handles. All the time I was thinking of what other blouses and tops I had to match, what necklace to wear and what shoes.

I still remember the skirts: one was black, white, and red plaid and one was pink, and off-white plaid with a little maroon stripe.

Pleated skirt circa 1950's

As soon as I had the skirts in the bag, I was planning what I’d buy next to add to the outfits. All I had to do was give up any social life so I could earn the money. At 14 and not allowed to date, I should have been asking, “What social life?”


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3 responses to “Cleveland 1956”

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  1. Carolyn says:

    “The sweet sweet memories you gave to me. Can’t beat the memories you gave to me….” I taste them now! Mother and I would walk to the end of our street in Willoughby and catch the Greyhound for downtown at least twice a year. How grown up I felt! Remember the milk shakes at the foot of the wooden elevators in the basement floor at Higbees? Yum!

    But the royal blue, shirtwaist dress I bought at Higbee’s for the first day of my junior year turned out to be a disaster. The only difference between it and our gymsuits (remember those?)was the boxer legs! Yikes.

  2. frugal franny says:

    That was very evocative. I feel a bit melancholy thinking of those innocent years.