Confessions of a Marsha Jordan Girl

For one young woman dreaming of her future, New England's iconic Jordan Marsh department stores offered a taste of elegance and sophistication.

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Confessions of a Marsha Jordan Girl

Anne Horst/i2iart

When blueberries are in season and I’m feeling nostalgic for my younger days, I dig out a purple-stained card from my recipe box and begin baking blueberry muffins. Although the ingredients–flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs, baking powder, and salt–don’t seem magical, when they’re combined in a certain way with enough berries to turn the batter a pale lavender and topped with a heavy sprinkling of sugar, these muffins can transport me back in time.

As they bake, if I close my eyes, I can go back to when I was Ann-Marie, not Ann. I can picture a happy half-dozen of them snuggled into a white bakery box, the lid open, and me trying to choose the blueberriest one of them all. It’s a long-ago Sunday afternoon, and our house is filled with relatives, some who show up every Sunday and some who drift in and out over the years. My grandmother, Mama Rose, is hoisting a pan of lasagna from the oven, trimming fennel to serve with a dish of oil for dipping, stirring a pot of red sauce–“gravy,” we called it–and making coffee, seemingly all at the same time, moving around our tiny kitchen–“the pantry,” we called it–as in a well-choreographed ballet. She made that coffee right on the stove, with eggshells added to the grounds to cut the bitterness. In “the kitchen,” the room other people would have called the dining room, the relatives ate Auntie Etta’s cookies: small round ones fried and covered in honey, then topped with colored sprinkles; delicate butter cookies shaped like wreaths and seashells; and her “daffodil cake,” an angel-food cake with egg yolks stirred in at the right time to create the shape of daffodils in bloom.

And … the muffins. They came all the way from Boston, from the Jordan Marsh bakery. I’d never been to Boston, never been to Jordan Marsh. It loomed large and sparkling in my imagination. I thought it must look like a palace, its floors filled with dazzling mirrors and fancy women spritzing perfume at customers as they passed. We had department stores in Rhode Island, sure–but none that produced muffins the size of those, none the size of Jordan Marsh’s, none that dwelled in a city like Boston.

The only rival to Jordan Marsh in my mind was its rival store, Filene’s. My birthday, December 9, came the day before my godmother’s birthday. Auntie Ellen herself was a romantic heroine to me: tall and blonde, her makeup always perfect, her hair always flipped just so. She had no children of her own; that gave her an air of tragedy but also added to her mystery. Auntie Ellen never had to run off to pick up her kids, never smelled of applesauce or baby or the other things our own mothers smelled like. Instead, she could go all the way to Boston, just to shop at Filene’s.

My birthday presents always came from there, arriving in their own wrapping paper and tied with a perfect red bow. One year, I opened the box to find a brown suede bracelet with a gold rectangle in the center, and in that rectangle, in the fanciest script I’d ever seen, my own name: Ann-Marie. It was the most sophisticated gift I’d ever received, made even more so because it came from that Boston mecca of sophistication, Filene’s.

Founded by a German immigrant named William Filene, it was originally called Filene’s Sons & Company, a group of many small shops. In 1881 Filene combined them to create his department store on Washington Street, where Eben Dyer Jordan and Benjamin L. Marsh had opened Jordan Marsh & Company, the first departmentalized store in the country, 20 years earlier.

Filene’s and Jordan Marsh began many of the services contemporary shoppers would come to take for granted. Both stores were elegantly designed, with products from around the world sold in different departments. As a way to sell excess merchandise, Edward Filene, William’s son, opened the bargain annex that came to be known as the famous Filene’s Basement. He also developed an automatic markdown schedule that’s still used today. Filene’s slogan was “Money back if not satisfied.” Next door–just across Summer Street, the cross street that divided the two stores–Jordan Marsh pioneered its own services for shoppers, including charge accounts and the policy that “the customer is always right.” It was also one of the first stores to feature electric lights, glass showcases, telephones, and elevators. And it also had art exhibitions, the bakery that produced those blueberry muffins, and fashion shows, a specialty that would reach across almost a century to me in Warwick, Rhode Island.

The Warwick Mall opened about a mile from my house in 1970, when I was 14 years old. At one end: Filene’s. At the other: Jordan Marsh. To me, the arrival of these two department stores heralded an opportunity to buy the clothes and makeup I drooled over every month in Seventeen magazine. It meant that even for a girl like me, someone who sat and stared out the window dreaming of a vague but glamorous future, sophistication was within my grasp. And the stores turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped. They dazzled and enchanted me with their displays of goods. Cosmetic counters filled practically their entire first floors; the air smelled of Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar. When I walked into either of those stores, I became someone new. They held the future, I thought: my future.

One summer afternoon as I was walking from the mall entrance toward Jordan Marsh, a woman called to me. She had the best posture I’d ever seen on a real person, and she sat at a makeshift desk. Her smile stretched brightly across her face. “Have you ever considered modeling?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation. I’d considered every occupation I thought would throw me headfirst into a glamorous life: modeling, cruise-ship hostess, airline stewardess.

“We’re putting together a fashion board of eight girls,” she explained. “‘Marsha Jordan’ girls,” she added.

Before she could continue, I was filling out the application. “Do you know what you’re going to wear on the first day of school?” she asked me.

Know? I’d made a chart of my outfits all the way through October. “Hot-pink hot pants with a matching maxi vest and a pink-flowered shirt,” I said.

“Hot pants with a maxi vest …” she repeated, impressed. She made a note and told me that 16 girls would be called for final interviews.

By the time I got home that afternoon, Jordan Marsh had called; I was one of the 16. In an afternoon, I’d gone from a regular girl with oversized dreams to an almost-Marsha Jordan girl. A week later, I was in the store’s upper-floor conference room, eating brownie sundaes with executives and answering questions about everything from what makeup I liked (Bonne Bell!) to my favorite novel (Marjorie Morningstar!). Every Jordan Marsh store in New England had Marsha Jordan girls–high-schoolers who modeled at fashion shows at the stores and at mother/daughter teas, who conducted surveys on fashion at the malls and at their schools, whose pictures hung on spinning cubes in the Junior Department. By the time I left that interview, I knew I had to be a Marsha Jordan girl–I had to.

They told us they’d call with a final decision by 5:30. But 5:30 came and went and no one called. At 6:00, I was hysterical, begging Mama Rose to pray to St. Anthony, her patron saint. Puzzled by what exactly to pray for, she nonetheless set to work in front of his statue in our living room. My mother ordered me outside; I was making her anxious. When the phone rang at 6:15, I was too nervous to answer. But my father did; I heard his slow drawl saying that yes, Ann was home. “Ann,” he said, “it’s someone from Jordan Marsh calling for you.” I took that phone and said hello to my future.

Confessions of a Marsha Jordan Girl

Confessions of a Marsha Jordan Girl

Anne Horst/i2iart

In so many ways, I grew up at Jordan Marsh. The seven other Marsha Jordan girls and I were given uniforms: gray-and-white-striped pants and jacket, a cranberry blouse with white cuffs and collar. We traveled on our own by bus to that flagship store on Washington Street for fittings and fashion shows. We ate chicken-divan crepes at The Magic Pan and salads with sticky buns at The Engish Tea Room on Newbury Street. We hailed cabs and walked across Boston Common, a gaggle of long-haired, long-legged 16-year-olds. At home, we stood on pedestals, mannequin modeling. We dated college boys who worked there for their summer jobs, getting first kisses in their Fiats and Mustangs in the parking lot. On one night in December, the store closed for Men’s Night, and only men were allowed in to shop for their wives and girlfriends, while we walked around the store in a revolving array of clothes. Bonne Bell sent us makeup to try and cartons of Ten-O-Six lotion to tackle our pimples.

I wanted my days as a Marsha Jordan girl to never end. I wanted those summers of long kisses and hours of fittings and runway shows to go on and on. But like all things, those days did end, and soon I was off to college, where I traded in that gray-and-white-pinstripe uniform for a khaki-pants-and-Izod-shirt one. I still went to Filene’s and Jordan Marsh when I wanted to buy something special: Christmas gifts for my mom, beautiful housewares as friends got married, splurges for myself. And then I traded in that preppy uniform for a Ralph Lauren-designed TWA flight attendant’s uniform. On layovers I rode escalators in department stores in Paris and London, San Francisco and Manhattan. Harrods was bigger, Henri Bendel more chic, Nordstrom grander. But none of them compared with my first loves, those early visions of glamour and sophistication that anchored the Warwick Mall back home.

Today, Jordan Marsh and Filene’s are gone. At the mall now, Macy’s and Target have taken their places. Like my childhood dreams, those venerable stores have faded in my memory. But when I bake those muffins, when I pull them from the oven warm and sparkling with sugar, I can almost go back there. I close my eyes and take a bite, and a rush of images passes through me: my mother in Filene’s, testing a new shade of red lipstick; my friends and me buying 45s of Three Dog Night and Simon & Garfunkel in Jordan Marsh’s record department. I’m giggling with my friend Beth. I’m opening a slender box and finding a brown suede bracelet with my name engraved on a gold decal: Ann-Marie. The muffins are sweet. Their taste lingers for a long moment before it’s gone.

RECIPE:

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins

Comments
  • Monique

    What a beautiful story. I remember Jordan Marsh, my mother used to shop there when we lived in Manchester, NH. We went by it every day on our way to and from school. Thanks for the memories!

    Reply
  • Susan

    I remember Marsha and those absolutely delicious blueberry muffins. I worjed at Jordan’s as a teenager, I, now, work for Macy’s.

    Reply
  • A well written story that reflects memories of my past growing up outside of Boston.
    I can relate to every detail in this story, except I was a Gilchrist Girl. I also loved Filene’s and Jordan Marsh and on my weekly trips every Saturday morning to Gilchrist I would stop by Jordan’s Bakery for those delicious famous Blueberry Muffins. Such good memories.

    Reply

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