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Our Rich History: Shillito’s downtown store reaches its peak, World War II through the 1960s

Part 4 of a continuing series on Cincinnati’s grand downtown department stores

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

In last week’s installment, we reviewed how Shillito’s Department Store in downtown Cincinnati completed a mammoth addition in 1936-37, expanding its total sales floor space from 263,000 to 423,000 square feet. But 1937 would also bring misfortune to the Ohio River region.

In 1937, the Ohio River swelled to nearly 80 feet, flooding much of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area and leaving thousands homeless. The Lazarus family and the staff of Shillito’s swung into action. While officially closed to buying customers for ten days, Shillito’s fed Red Cross and emergency workers, and also provided free, clean drinking water from the artesian wells at its Seventh and Race Streets store to any resident who requested it. For all customers in the flood district, Shillito’s postponed merchandise payments for sixth months.

Shillito’s dedicated a war bond window in 1942. SOURCE: Cincinnati Post, April 27, 1942, p. 15.

By 1939, Shillito’s reclaimed its lead as the largest department store in Cincinnati, as measured by sales volume. In April of that same year, Shillito’s began providing another free amenity to area residents, an automated “time of day” phone service.

As a child in the 1960s, I remember that whenever a storm produced a power outage, I looked forward to when electricity was restored and I could call Shillito’s “time of day” for the correct time, so that we could reset our electric clocks. The system utilized an “Audichron” or “Robot Phone.” The technology was so amazing that during the first 24 hours of operation of the service in 1939, 22,000 callers checked out the system!

In 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States faced enemies far stronger than even the Great Depression or floods could command. Again, Shillito’s stepped up to the plate. Its staff, which Shillito’s preferred to call “associates,” contributed to the war effort by buying bonds through a payroll deduction plan, and by volunteering in their communities. The store stayed open late on Monday evenings for the convenience of employees working around-the-clock shifts at defense plants. Shillito’s donated its 10-ton Shillito Place marquee/store awning as scrap for the war effort. And a “Victory Window” on Race Street was solely dedicated to the promotion of war bonds and war stamps.

Shillito’s new parking garage, northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets, late 1940s. Courtesy of Towne Properties.

During World War II, the federal government halted all major construction projects except those absolutely essential to the war effort. In addition, the nation’s automobile plants converted to manufacturing war material rather than cars. Looking forward to the future, however, Shillito’s purchased the northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets for a planned parking garage.

With the end of World War II in 1945, consumers throughout the nation were ready to buy all kinds of products. They had patriotically sacrificed throughout the war years when everything from automobiles to home appliances to women’s stockings was in short supply. But now that the war was over, the nation went on a spending spree.

The postwar era ushered in the growing popularity of automobiles and of electronic appliances for the home, especially televisions. Shillito’s was ready. On November 1, 1946, it opened its new 1,100-car capacity parking garage on the northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets. Five months later, on April 26, 1947, Shillito’s opened an annex to its store on the first floor of the new parking garage. The annex featured sporting goods and auto accessories initially, and later, televisions and home appliances.

The Lazarus family continued to broaden its commitment to the wider community and to its “associates” (employees). In 1945, they established the Shillito Store Foundation for the emergency needs of “Shillito’s associates, former associates and their dependents.” In September 1946, Shillito’s established a 5-day, 40-hour work week for its associates, with the exception of the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 1951, the downtown store added escalators for the convenience of its shoppers. And in 1953, as part of the Federated Department Stores chain, Shillito’s began offering its employees a retirement pension plan.

Shillito’s, looking east along Seventh St., circa 1949. Source: Lawrence Grand Collection, Kenton County Public Library, Covington

By 1955, Shillito’s total sales volume was larger than the combined totals of the second, third, and fourth largest Cincinnati department stores. More expansions were planned.

In October 1957, Shillito’s opened an addition to its new downtown parking garage, bringing its capacity to 1,581 automobiles, and extending it all the way to Seventh and Plum Streets. In 1965, Shillito’s added an 8-story, 105,000 square-foot addition to its downtown store along Elm Street.

The downtown store was clearly at its peak. Shillito’s was a destination. You could eat at one of its restaurants, get your hair cut at its beauty salon, and shop for everything imaginable — from clothes to shoes to baked goods and candy to housewares, china, gifts, domestics, books, sporting goods, pets, toys, furniture, draperies, appliances, televisions, and auto accessories, plus much more. And a telephone shopping service, called “Nancy Harper,” assisted customers if they preferred to shop from home. With easy payment plans, and one of the city’s earliest credit cards, Shillito’s was both innovative and convenient.

In addition, the downtown store held major events, including an annual Scholastic Art Awards Contest, open to junior and senior high school students. Shillito’s also sponsored an annual World Fair that brought in artisans from around the globe to display their talents and goods. In 1953, for example, a wood carver from Oberammergau, West Germany delighted shoppers with his hand-carved creations.

Elves at work, retrieving letters from “Good Kids,” Shillito’s Christmas Display. Courtesy of Monica Gels.

In time for the 1953 Christmas season, Shillito’s unveiled a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree, crowned by an additional 25-foot-tall star. Comprised of nearly 3,500 electric lights and giant aluminum ornaments, this stranded-light tree originally hung over the Race Street entrance. As a child in the 1960s, I remember that it wrapped around the entire corner of the store at Seventh and Elm Streets, and I believe that a matching one also illuminated the corner at Seventh and Race Streets.

Shillito’s quickly became THE place for Christmas. Its animated Christmas displays, in its massive Seventh and Elm corner windows, attracted large crowds. In December 1964, the Cincinnati Post declared in a headline that “Shillito’s Window Causes Human Traffic Jam.” Thousands gathered to look as “Miss Mary Christmas, her brother Steven, and all their little animal friends played and cavorted about in the miniature ‘Tis the Night Before Christmas’ tableau” (Cincinnati Post, December 4, 1964, p. 19).

Around another corner, however, the suburbs beckoned thousands of homeowners, while I-75 and urban renewal decimated the city’s West End, displacing thousands more. The downtown store faced its toughest times ahead.

Next Week: Suburban stores, mergers, and the closing of the downtown store.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

Elves in their workshop, Shillito’s Christmas Display. Courtesy of Monica Gels.

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  1. DOREEN KIRTON says:

    Just read about the Shillito’s store and I am wondering how it got the Shillito name from, was it a family name. I am interested because my husband’s grandmother’s maiden name was Shillito. Would be gratefull for any information. Thank you
    Yours Sincerly
    Doreen Kirton

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