Department Store Browsing in the 1950’s

By the time I was nine or ten years old, I found department stores could be just as much fun as dime stores for browsing, the great pastime for kids in pre-television days.

McCown-Smith Department Store was located on Dargan Street right where Evans runs into it. One entrance was on Dargan and a second one on East Evans — another two-main door store.

McCown-Smith sold a lot of blue and white enamel basins and cast aluminum cook pots, but they seemed to specialize in linens. You know, cotton sheets and chenille bedspreads.

They also featured crocheted antimacassars, tatted doilies, lace-edged dresser scarves, and embroidered table runners. My grandmother Mimi took me shopping for those in McCown-Smith one time. I’d never heard the word “antimacassar” before that day — but most folks had one on the back of every armchair and couch. Those were the days of Wildroot Cream Oil hair tonic, and when a fellow leaned back some of his Wildroot would come off, and naturally you needed an antimacassar to keep it off the sofa.

Of course, these things would wear out fast with weekly washing, so you’d have to take another trip to Mc-Cown Smith. And of course your knickknacks couldn’t sit on a naked table-top, they needed a lace doily. Likewise your hairbrush and bare wood needed a dresser scarf in between them. McCown-Smith sold them all.

Across East Evans Street was Belk’s Department Store. You could go in a big glass swinging door on Evans Street, march in a straight line back to the shoe department and come out on Dargan, then circle back up the sidewalk to re-enter on Evans. It drove the salesladies batty but it seemed like fun at the time.

Riding Belk’s elevator was an adventure, if you could convince the attendant you weren’t just horsing around. Running up the staircase was faster anyhow. By the time the attendant closed the door, worked the lift, and on arrival jerked the car up and down several times trying to get the elevator floor level, you could have been up and down the staircase two or three times.

Belk’s second floor Ladies Ready-to-Wear seemed hushed and dignified. I liked to sashay between the long, silky evening dresses or run my fingers back and forth on wool coat fur collars, but the clerks lingered at your elbow, sweetly suspicious if a parent wasn’t in sight. “May I help you find your mother, honey?”

I really preferred downstairs Belk’s, anyway. Perfume, bedroom slippers or earbobs, just about any gift item you could want was displayed atop glass cases. Dusting powder or leather wallets, everything had such a neat smell. Belk’s smelled almost as good as the Donut Dinette over on Palmetto Street.

In the middle of the 100 block of West Evans was an amazing store – J. C. Penney. I was fascinated by the cables running through the air from ground-floor countertops to second-floor business offices. Little round containers zipped along those cables carrying money and sales slips, who knows what all. Mechanical ding-ding sounds accompanied the containers up those cables.

Today we think nothing of putting our deposits into a vacuum tube at the drive-through and watching it zoom up, over and into the bank building. I guess Penney’s had the idea first, at least here in Florence.

On down West Evans, if you crossed the street and turned right on Irby you came to the big Sears Roebuck and Company. Another two-main entrance store (front and back), it offered lots more for a kid to investigate. Clothing took up the front, ladies and girls on the left, men and boys on the right. Cosmetics, jewelry, and shoes occupied the middle.

Serious stuff like electric cook stoves and wringer washers were way in the back. There were lots of tools and tires and men shoppers back there. Girls found that department dull and boring; we didn’t do much browsing back there.

Hats were a must in the 1950’s and every department store had a millinery section. Big round mirrors were provided with stools to sit on while ladies tried on the latest fashion. Aunt Myrtle, a millinery specialist most of her life, believed in hats! My mother had floppy straw ones with feathers for Sunday go-to-meeting, pill-box types for funerals, and silk-flower caps for weddings.

Sears frowned on little girls trying hats on for fun, but switching hats around on the fake heads was amusing when the saleslady was elsewhere.

Over in the unmentionables department, long fake legs showed off nylon stockings. No shoes. No torsos either, just legs and hose. There wasn’t any such thing as pantyhose then, just stockings. Ladies wore garters around their thighs to keep them up, or a girdle if they needed extra help holding their tummy in.

Fake hands at an adjoining counter wore short “Dress Gloves for Any Occasion,” white or tan for summer, navy blue or black for winter. I wondered if the skin tone went all the way down to the fingers and if the hand had any fingernails, but I never got up the nerve to peel off a glove and see.

Watchful sales clerks kept a close eye out when kids went browsing in the department stores (some called it snooping). “Don’t run, don’t touch, and if you break it, you bought it” sort of cramped our style, but browsing was still good entertainment. Even grownups liked to do it in the pre-TV 1950’s downtown Florence.

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