A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Friday 29 April 2011

The Man Behind Unkle Eph...A Raymond's Department Store of Boston Legend

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!!!

It is always my pleasure and utter joy to be contacted by readers of the blog who want to share their personal stories, memories and connections to the wonderful stores of Boston’s rich, creative and diverse past.

Raymond’s Department Store will forever remain the most outlandish and unique of all the Boston stores of yesteryear. I have had so many emails and comments about this store and am thrilled to present a look behind the myths and memories of this great Boston legend.

Unkle Eph became the living icon for Raymond’s and there was a time in Boston when this figure was known and celebrated...sadly, today...Raymond’s is becoming hazier in our recollections and Unkle Eph is even foggier.

Enter David Little.
He is the grandson of the real Unkle Eph and his mother wrote a research paper during time spent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill back in 1962 about her father and his intimate connection to Unkle Eph.

I present the paper here pretty much in its entirety but have not used the type written letters and attempted to locate the newspaper clippings instead as this was something Agnes Little wanted to do in 1962 but could not in those pre-internet days of old.

David not only shared the paper of his mother’s but also some wonderful photos, too.
I have put together a salute to Unkle Eph and used articles and ads from the 1920’s to 1940’s. Unkle Eph was played by others after the original stepped down, I have found a bit about one gentleman who took on the tradition in the 1960’s.
I have also tossed in a great photo of Unkle Eph and Frank Dorr in an open carriage during an early Unkle Eph Day in the 1930’s. These celebration days when Unkle Eph, Ant Mary and the rest of the gang would come to town...well, it was a unique parade with much whim and fancy for the hundreds of spectators that lined Washington Street.

Boston with its prim and proper reputation…famous for stores with that elegant, refined look such as R.H. Stearn’s...Beacon Hill society attending symphony on weekday afternoons...institutions of higher education on every street corner. Boston high brow and stiff lipped.

And yet, corny Unkle Eph spoke and Boston listened. His spelling was outrageous but his messages were clear. Not only did he speak of the store and its values…he spoke from the heart.

A great example of this was in the late 1920’s when Unkle Eph spoke of the need to close all retail stores on November 11th and think about the true meaning of Armistice Day. This outspoken position was saluted and valued by thousands of servicemen and their families. An Armistice Day letter from Unkle Eph would become a regular feature in the Boston press for years to come.

Today it may all seem very silly to those who are young. And yes, Raymond’s did have its critics who found it all “too, shabby”, but Unkle Eph was a magnet and served Raymond’s very well.

And the minister behind the character also got a chance to speak out and touch all those who read his words. I cannot think of a more wonderful tale in all the chronicles of Boston retailing history as this story presented here by Agnes Little.
I say....where are the Frank Dorr’s and Harvey Eastman’s of Boston today??
Boston needs spirit in the downtown area...who will inspire a new wave of creativity today?

The job is still open. Any takers?



This collection of letters is from a series of letters published as part of their advertising by Raymond's Department Store in Boston, Massachusetts from 1919 until the late forties. They were written by my father, Harvey M. Eastman.

This store had been started by George J. Raymond in 1870. At first, the business was conducted in a tent situated on a vacant lot. Here, Mr. Raymond sold hats by the hundreds of thousands. He later moved to a store on Washington Street and added other lines of merchandise to his hats. One slogan still used by the store came from this early venture. It is "Where you bot the hat." Mr. Raymond had unusual and original ideas of merchandising. He wanted to sell quality goods at the lowest possible price for cash. All advertising must be truthful and the customer was always right.
Much of the stock for the store was purchased from stores going out of business or from stores which were overstocked. The name of the store from which the stock came was usually mentioned when it was advertised. If for some reason the store name could not be used, the ads would say “You can see where we got the stuff when you read the tags." A common practice was to leave the original tags on and sell everything at half price.

Many stories are told about Mr. Raymond's original methods of selling. One told by an associate follows:
“Sometimes he surely did scandalize the highbrows. Once, I remember, he bought a whole lot of those useful household articles politely known as chambers. As a matter of fact, he got a whole carload of them, all family size. Even though it was in the days when bathrooms were not very numerous, for some reason or other, the public didn't rush to buy them. So, after waiting what he thought was a reasonable time, he had one of the store windows piled full of them. There were big price cards reading `2 cents, no wrapping." In a short time, Washington Street was full of them and his window display got many a laugh and advertised the store, besides moving a lot of chambers."

Mr. Frank I. Dorr joined the staff of the store in 1895. Soon after Mr. Raymond's death in 1915, Mr. Dorr purchased control of the store. Mr. Dorr continued the policies of Mr. Raymond and added a few ideas of his own. They are best expressed in the Raymond's Code of Honor, which was painted on the walls of the Men's Department and used often in advertising.

The notice follows:

Only A Store

Where all the people can buy merchandise, that's all. Merely a store, not a lottery, BUT A STORE, the results of years of hard work catering to the interests of the people. NO STAMPS, no tinsel shows, no catchpenny schemes of any nature, NO BAD CHARGE ACCOUNTS (for you to pay for), NO FANCY FIXTURES, NO Expensive Delivery Systems, no P.M.'s to clerks to force you to buy unusable merchandise, no Turn-over men so you can't get out with a whole suit if you don't buy, no Fancy Expressions, no Hired Brains to write mushy, slushy advertising, no High Salaried Wallflowers - - NOTHING TO PAY FOR BUT THE GOODS YOU BUY - - on the Express Condition that YOU'RE THE BOSS and MUST be satisfied or Get Your Money Back quickernlitenin.
Yours truly,

In 1919, my father ordered an overcoat from the store. It was advertised to be a revolting color, but of such good material it would wear until you were sick of it. If you thought you could stand the color, you were invited to come and "lugemoff” at ten dollars apiece. My father was so delighted with his coat he wrote to the owner of the store saying the color certainly was horrible, but the material was all the store had advertised it to be. He included an order for two more coats for friends. The letter was written in a combination of fractured grammar and backwoods spelling. Soon there was a request from Mr. Dorr to use the letter in the Raymond's advertising. This request was granted and other letters followed.

After a while, Mr. Dorr wrote my father that he would double any salary he might be getting if he would come to work full-time on advertising for the store. My father replied that he was a Congregational minister and was unable to accept the offer. Mr. Dorr's answer to this letter was that he didn't believe my father could be a minister. He said he didn't care much for preachers, but that maybe if he had known some like my father, he might have liked them better. One day when he was in Boston on ministerial business, my father appeared at the store in his 'preaching clothes" and convinced Mr. Dorr of his profession.

This beginning of the Unkle Eph is based on stories I heard my father tell. Eph is pronounced 'eef". It is short for Ephraim, a common old New England name. Why it was used here, I never heard.

Because the Boston papers in which the letters appeared are not available in this section of the country, this is a random and incomplete collection from the scattered letters saved in my father's scrapbook. Unfortunately, few of the letters are dated, The letters may be divided roughly into three categories. There are letters about the policies of the store. There are letters about current issues of the day. The largest number of letters recount the happenings in a mythological town. The town was called Toonerville for over thirteen years. The name was then changed to Smugginsville after a protest from Fontaine Fox, creator of the Toonerville Trolley cartoon, that he had been using the name longer that Raymond's, and was the creator of it.

A group of village characters was developed through the letters. These included Eph's wife, Ant Mary; Mr. and Mrs. Si Toiler; Algy Perkins, the city farmer; Ez Donlin; Mis Baskum, who was over three hundred; and Bat Conner, the village drunkard.
So much interest was created in Unkle Eph and his village friends that in 1926 Mr. Dorr decided to have them visit the store in person and hold a gigantic sale while they were there. This first Unkle Eph Day was such a success, that it became a semi-annual event until 1942. The village characters were all dressed in costume and made up in character. The celebration included an early-morning parade through the downtown Boston streets, complete with a hayrick drawn by oxen, village cops, and a band. The Toonerville inhabitants spent the day at the store greeting their friends. My father was, for all these years, Unkle Eph at these celebrations.

The advertising for Unkle Eph days was always extensive. Often, it was a separate section of the Boston papers set up to look like a different newspaper. This section would be entitled 'The Toonerville Trumpet - It Blows Its Own Horn.' Occasionally, The Trumpet would be completely separate from the newspapers. On one such occasion, several thousand copies were sold for a cent apiece by the regular newsboys. It was done as a stunt, but it is probably the only time a store sold its own advertising.
The employees of Raymond's, the people in the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island, where my father preached, and family friends knew that my father and Unkle Eph were the same person. However, the fact was not published and the usual assumption was that the letters were the creation of either Mr. Dorr or of an advertising agent. In 1934 a book about Raymond's was published. It was `Hayseed and Sawdust, The Story of Raymond's, Where U Bot The Hat' by Frank I. Dorr. This book was largely ghost-written by my father. This book never says that Mr. Dorr is Unkle Eph, but when one Boston paper reviewed the book, the headline read, 'Unkle Eph Finally Tells His Story.' It was not until the early forties that Unkle Eph was identified by name as a Rhode Island minister in the Boston papers.

My father never compiled a glossary to guide himself in the spelling or words he used in the letters. He just sat down and wrote the letters. Apparently the letters were not edited before they were published. There are many inconsistencies in the spelling of the same word. Uncle and Unkle are used interchangeably, sometimes in the same letter.

By Agnes Little (1962)

Thank you, David!! Long live innovation and the spirit to be UNIQUE!