Longtime area resident recalls all the glories of downtown Meier and Frank store
- Lynn Turner
- Regal Courier - Opinion
Ladies will remember Cherries in the Snow lipstick shade
For some reason, this cool red shade of lipstick, made by Revlon, popped into my head the other day. It was one I wore in the late '40s or early '50s, and I remembered buying it in downtown Portland at the Meier and Frank store.
Meier and Frank was a true department store at that time. It had a notions department where you could buy buttons, zippers and all sorts of miscellaneous doo-dads.
There was a deli and meat department, furniture, hair salon, photography studio and of course, clothing. You could also find yardage and patterns and every type of house ware.
At Christmas, there was a wonderland of a toy department on the seventh floor, with children lined up to see Santa and his elves. Quartets and other small music groups played and sang live Christmas music throughout the store. In later years, I sang in one of those groups for several seasons.
The Portland Traction Company ran buses to downtown Portland every few minutes on most of Portland's main streets. A short walk took you past the old Portland Hotel, later a Meier and Frank parking lot and now Pioneer Square, to the 10-story building.
Every Friday, the store held a Friday Surprise sale. They didn't advertise what all of the savings were to be found there, and people would flock downtown to find out what the bargains were.
They didn't just go there, they dressed up to go there. My friend's mother went every Friday, dressed in some pretty fine outfits, including a hat and a dead animal draped over her shoulders, which was an expensive fur piece with its little "taxidermied" head intact. Those were very popular, and called Kolinskys, I believe.
Shoppers who had the time and the money would make a day of it, eating lunch in the elegant Meier and Frank Tea Room on the 10th floor.
There was another café - the stool-at-a-countertop kind. The waitresses wore starched uniforms and aprons and had pretty handkerchiefs spread out like a corsage in an upper pocket.
This was the restaurant I was more familiar with then, although in later years I did have the famous chicken salad in the fancier dining room from time to time.
People would plan to meet there, under the clock on the main floor, even if they were going to go elsewhere that day.
It was that much of a landmark in Portland. "Where shall we meet?" "Under the clock at Meier and Frank."
The real bargains were to be found on the two floors below the main floor. Some of the merchandise there was marked "slightly irregular" with a corresponding price reduction. Older ladies could buy very serviceable underwear there, no glamour, at a low price.
I suppose there were stairs to take, but then you would miss being part of the very organized process of taking the elevator. The elevators had real live operators who could manipulate a device rather like a small ship's wheel. They were able to call out what was available on each floor as you approached it.
A new operator would sometimes have to hold you back with one hand while she bumped the car up and down, trying to get it level with the floor.
They worked hard, but were not nearly as dedicated and aware of their positions as the attendants who stood outside the banks of elevators. They wore uniforms, had castanets on their fingers, and they were the law!
You got on the elevator they said you could get on and no other, and not before they said so, and there would be no crowding in to stand next to your friend if the car was already full.
They clicked their castanets when a car was approaching and you'd better waste no time getting ready to get on as soon as the passengers inside were allowed off. Oh, it was an exciting experience!
The clerks had a dress code and were paid very little money. I know this because I worked there for one week after we came home from the Air Force with our two toddlers.
Since salaries were based on commission, the old-time clerks knew how to beat the newbies out of a sale. My week's pay didn't even cover baby-sitting and bus fare, so I quit.
My husband worked there too, in men's furnishings (ties, gloves, etc.) and luckily found another job soon, so that we could exist.
Aside from that sad experience, it was a wonderful place. The dark wooden floors, the smells from the perfume and cosmetics counters, the tobacco shop, the candy shop, the hustle and bustle.
Even the frowns from the millinery clerks who didn't appreciate giggling teenagers trying on the hats. Some of the clerks handled the merchandise with real loving care. The ladies selling hosiery would put a hand inside a silk or nylon stocking and display the sheerness to a prospective buyer.
There was never a problem getting waited on - the commission, you know!
In 1955 the first branch store was opened in Salem, occupying a full city block. A year or so later, the Lloyd Center store opened, and people started getting used to driving to malls instead of taking the bus downtown.
The Meiers and the Franks were a big part of Oregon history. Aaron Frank emigrated from Germany. The store was founded in 1870, and there was a marriage between the families.
One of the sons of the first Meier became Gov. Julius Meier of Oregon in 1930. He owned the country estate up in the Columbia Gorge that is now a retreat center called Menucha.
The company was in two or three other locations in downtown Portland before it ended up in its final location where I first knew it.
A grandson, Gerry Frank, still writes a newspaper column.
I was saddened when Macy's bought the company in 2005, and now the Nines Hotel occupies the upper floors of the downtown building.
It will never seem the same as when a young woman with dark brown hair, wanting to wear the dark red lipstick that was popular then, went in to buy "Cherries in the Snow" in the cosmetics department of Meier and Frank.
Lynn Turner is a Tigard resident with an adventurous spirit who likes to look at the world in creative ways.