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

Thursday 28 June 2012

Retro Boston Bakes Back In That Sizzling Summer of 1949

Hello and Happy Summer to all my Retro Boston Friends!!!

Today we look back to the summer of 1949.

A summer mainly remembered today in Boston history circles for the extremely exciting season the Boston Red Sox had...but in the world of weather watchers and those old enough to recall...the summer of 1949 broke records for the number of sweltering days experienced in one summer...a record that remained unbroken only until quite recently.

The city of Boston baked with steady heat spells (that could last for several days at a time) from June through August and the news headlines devoted to the intense heat became far too numerous to count.

Bostonians experienced an onslaught of extraordinarily warm days almost from the first day of June that year and “summer mode” kicked in long before the official first day of the season.

This early heat blast tragically caused many deaths in the city; both from heatstroke and accidental drowning as the inhabitants were taken very much by surprise. Many breathed a sigh of relief as each heat spell ended only to find another slowly moving towards Boston once again.

The Boston retailers had a long standing tradition that was still pretty much adhered to in 1949...most stores (this included all the department and speciality stores) closed on Saturdays in July and August. That fact may boggle the minds of younger readers but it was a tradition and done for a variety of logical and financial reasons.

Closing on Saturdays meant that employees could enjoy time away from the hot city with their families and friends and escape to places like Revere or Nantasket Beaches for a dip in the cooling ocean waves.

Also most of the larger stores in Boston, apart from Filene’s, were NOT air conditioned in 1949. This meant that the inside of the stores virtually roasted on steamy summer days and only the evenings brought some slightly cooler, much welcome temperatures....thus a few more evening shopping hours were introduced in summer months instead of being open on the usual Saturdays.

Lastly, let’s face it, the big question was...to travel into Boston on the MTA and then sweat on the blazing streets as you traipse about on a Saturday or instead go off to the ocean and keep cool...mmm?? July and August would be a write off with few shoppers gracing the aisles on Saturdays....so close they did.

What was happening in the summer of 1949 in Boston? Lots!!

R.H. White’s was busy remodelling their flagship store in Boston to keep pace with industrious Jordan Marsh who was very much in the midst of the first stage of a vast building project. Not since the Annex went up in the early 1900’s, had Jordan Marsh been so busy with iron girders and digging machines.

Kresge’s was turning fifty and having fun promoting their long stay on Washington Street.

Filene’s proudly invited Boston to come on in and get COOL as you shop...all their floors had air conditioning from the basement upwards.

Gilchrist’s opened its brand new branch store in Medford in August...fully fitted with refreshing air conditioning!

Many of the smaller retailers did have air conditioning systems and used the fact to great advantage in the print ads of the time. The “Drop in and stay cool while you shop” theme worked wonders!

Some of the Boston movie palaces did have large air cooling systems and those theatres managed to draw in great crowds that long, hot summer of 1949.

Bostonians loved breezy cruises around the local waters of Boston or further afield to places like Nantasket or Provincetown. Moonlight cruises were a huge thrill often with dancing to a live band and a great way to beat the relentless city heat.

Magazine Beach in Cambridge was open and swimming in the Charles River was permitted...my mother went there from Brookline in the 1940’s. It was very popular and easy to reach. I must admit that I was horrified as a young child when my mother told me she swam in the Charles River in the 1930’s and 40’s....by the early 1970’s...it was unimaginable! Today the river is much healthier...at least they say it is.

Take a look a look at the highlights of the Fourth of July 1949...classic American celebration at its very best!!

Another note for my younger readers:

Air conditioning is so common today that we forget that back in 1949 it was rare and a truly magical event to walk into a store or theatre that was air cooled and escape from the oppressive heat of downtown Boston. Also I have included one advert for a home air conditioner. At this point not many were available to the homeowner at this stage and...most Boston area homes had antique electrical wiring that was already far too overloaded...and with a price tag of over 300 dollars...it was considered a huge luxury item. It was up right up there with...a newfangled box called...television!

Another note I find intriguing from the summer of 1949:

Rugged President Harry Truman proclaimed in the midst of the heat waves that the hot spells were two-thirds heat and one-third imagination. I am not sure my poor, bedridden grandfather up in Brookline would have agreed. Harry enjoyed having his rooms in the White House pleasantly cooking away in the 80 degree range and disliked any air conditioning and sadly, my grandfather did not make it past mid-August that summer and became yet another heat related statistic.

Today I present a collection of store ads, articles, headlines and photos from that record breaking summer of 1949. A summer Boston sweltered, swore and...with that classic retro style and creativity, coped!

Enjoy....Keep Cool!! Charles:-)




Ps...Don't forget....I am still working on my Jordan Marsh memory project. Write me!!!!

Summer Event Notes: Michael Lisicky will be giving a Filene’s presentation at Old South Meeting House on July 24 and again on August 23 at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Try to catch one...or both!