Today’s post might seem a little bit random, but there’s method to the madness. Mostly, this is a very busy week here at MCHS as we get ready for the Strathmore Museum Shop Around (feel free to visit us there!), so a brief post on shopping bags seemed appropriate. Here we have three small paper shopping bags from Garfinckel’s, circa 1983-85.

Julius Garfinckel & Co was an upscale department store founded in the early 20th century by Julius Garfinckel (1875-1936). In 1929, a two million dollar building was constructed at 14th and F Streets downtown (a block away from the earlier store at 13th and F); this became the flagship store in the 1950s, when the chain expanded into the surrounding region. The first suburban branch was at the Seven Corners Shopping Center in Virginia, opened in 1956; the second one, at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, opened in 1968. (There was also a second D.C. store, in Spring Valley on Massachusetts Avenue.) In the 1970s and ‘80s several more stores opened, but in 1990 the company filed for bankruptcy, and all the locations quickly closed.

Advertisement for “Julius Garfinkle & Co” [yes, it’s spelled wrong] in the 1922 “Greeter’s Guide” to Washington, D.C.

Why does Montgomery County care about a D.C. department store? Before the city stores started moving out to the ‘burbs, many county residents ventured downtown for their consumer needs, especially high-end goods. Making a highly unscientific judgement based on clothing and accessories in our collections, Garfinckel’s and Woodward & Lothrop* were the main stores of choice, with Hecht’s coming in a distant third. (Sorry, fans of Jelleff’s, Lansburgh’s, Kann’s, Palais Royal, etc., which are represented by only one or two items each.) Montgomery County, along with Virginia’s Seven Corners, was the first place these stores moved to when expanding into the suburbs in the mid 20th century: Woodie’s in Chevy Chase, Hecht’s and Jelleff’s in Silver Spring, and Garfinckel’s (rather later than its competitors) in Bethesda.

These bags were part of a larger collection of bags and boxes saved from local stores, brought in by an MCHS volunteer many years ago. They were clearly saved, though whether to reuse** or out of sentiment is unclear. I did an exhibit on local department and specialty stores a few years ago, and I was surprised by the affection many people still hold for these stores. As an example: Garfinckel’s has a fan website, and also-closed Woodward & Lothrop has a Facebook page. I wonder if that will be true of today’s stores: Will there be passionate collectors of H&M ephemera in 50 years? . . . What am I saying? There probably already are. Nonetheless, based on what I heard while planning that exhibit it seems that the experience of shopping at a major department store is different today, despite the best efforts of the advertising departments. In this era of national chains, ubiquitous outlets, and internet shopping, the relationship between store and customer is a little more impersonal.

* To be honest, Woodies wins.

** Perhaps this frugal shopper anticipated the bag tax.

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