humboldt-history:-rip-daly’s-department-store-—-a-locally-owned,-fashion-forward,-pneumatic-tube-powered-wonderland-that-gave-this-girl-her-first-shot-in-business

HUMBOLDT HISTORY: RIP Daly’s Department Store — A Locally Owned, Fashion-Forward, Pneumatic Tube-Powered Wonderland That Gave This Girl Her First Shot In Business

An architect’s rendering of the remodel of Daly’s Fourth and F storefront. Photos via the Humboldt Historian.

A sense of loss overwhelmed me when I learned that Daly’s Department Store was closing its doors after 100 years. For some reason, I have always felt that I could dash in there and do a little shopping on my trips back home to Humboldt County. Eureka’s own department store with its huge plate glass display windows has played an important part in my life and in the lives of many others. It is sad to think of it being gone. I suspect it is another victim of the shopping malls.

My first memory of Daly’s Department Store is a shopping trip with my mother and younger sister. I must have been about eight years old and was still a little uncertain which department store was which — J.C. Penney or Daly’s. But this was definitely Daly’s — right across F Street from the Montgomery Ward store and the two big dime stores — Kress and Woolworth’s. Toward Fifth Street on the Daly’s side of the street were Matthew’s Music House, the Bon Boniere, and Arthur Johnson’s Menswear.

In the 1930s, a trip “downtown” was a rare occasion. We wore our best clothes and took along our best manners. It was a time when ladies always wore a nice dress and coat, silk stockings, dress shoes, and a hat and gloves. We entered the big double plate-glass doors on F Street and were dazzled by the gleaming glass display cases of the Center Aisle. These cases held gorgeous costume jewelry and fabulous perfumes and makeup. To our right were the Hosiery and Shoe Departments, and behind the Shoe Department was the Girl’s Department with racks of beautiful dresses, sweaters and skirts. I vaguely remember tiny dressing rooms at each corner of this department.

Mother usually made our clothes, but this time she decided to buy ready-made dresses for us. My little sister’s dress was a high-waisted, puffed-sleeved dress with a full circle skirt that whirled out beautifully when she spun around in circles. The hem was trimmed with two rows of braid, and the fabric was a cotton print of tiny flowers. She loved this dress so much, she saved it, even after the skirt fabric was faded and worn and split across the front from many washings and wearings. It probably cost around $3.98 plus tax.

I shall never forget the dress I got that day. It was a lovely shade of powder blue with just a hint of turquoise. The skirt was separate from the top and had pleats all the way around. The top was a short-sleeved jacket with big buttons marching down the front. It cost $4.98 plus three percent California State sales tax. This was a great deal of money at that time to spend on a child’s dress which might be outgrown in a month or a year. I wore that dress every chance I had. I wore it to shreds. My mother undoubtedly got her money’s worth from these purchases.

When we finished shopping, we went across the street to one of the dime stores where we were each allowed to choose 10 cents worth of candy at one of the candy counters with big covered glass displays of all kinds of confections-gum drops, lemon drops, round chocolates covered with white sprinkles called dragées, rocky road, licorice, chocolate stars, horehound drops, red and white striped peppermints, pastel pink, white and green tea mints-a veritable treasure-trove of goodies to pick from. I always chose chocolate stars.

On other shopping trips downtown, we went directly to the Yardage Department at Daly’s. On these trips, we turned to the left of the glittering Center Aisle, and walked past the Ladies Glove Department to Patterns and Yardage. Beyond the tables of fabrics, near the back of the store, were the Bedding and Linen and Houseware Departments.

I loved to look at all the fabrics and smell their newness. I imagined what I would make from each one. Sometimes Mother would let me choose a quarter of a yard of this or a quarter of a yard of that to sew new clothes for my Shirley Temple doll. I learned to use my mother’s sewing machine when I was seven years old by turning the wheel by hand. She would not let me use the electric control for fear I might sew my fingers! At that time, I longed to be a fashion designer and make beautiful clothing.

Buyers traveled regularly to New York. This trip took place in the 1940s.

As a child, I never dreamed that I might one day work in this store with all its wonderful merchandise.

I don’t think I ever explored the departments on the second floor until I was in high school. These departments were reached by the wide staircase or the elevator at the rear of the store, leading directly from the Center Aisle. There was a Beauty Salon, too, tucked away on the landing where the staircase turned to go up to Ladies Dresses, Coats, Hats, Sportswear, and Lingerie. The office and employee’s lunch room and coat room were up there, too. The Men’s and Boy’s Departments were reached by a short ramp between the wrapping desk and the elevator. It was on another level, due to the slope of Fourth Street at that point.

Once in a while as teens, my sisters and I were allowed to ride the city bus down J Street to Fifth and F streets to do our own shopping. Bus fare was five cents. Mother had a charge account at Daly’s, and on special occasions we were allowed to charge something “on approval”-meaning that we could take it back if our mother didn’t approve of our purchase. In those days, Daly’s had a delivery service and would send things out to your house, so shoppers didn’t have to carry a lot of packages around. Both hands were freed to do more shopping!

My older sister went to work in the office right out of junior college, and continued until after her marriage and the birth of her first son. She must have been instrumental in getting me a job there one Christmas season at the wrapping desk that was tucked under the stairs. This must have been the Christmas of 1944, as I had just turned 17. My father died that Christmas, and my sisters and I felt we needed to help our mother as much as possible.

The other wrapping desk girls and I worked at a long table, wrapping gifts with double sheets of white tissue paper and spools of ribbed ribbon in a rainbow of colors. We wrapped double rows of ribbon in square or diagonal patterns, and topped them off with curly poodle dog bows made of long lengths of the ribbon that were curled with the sharp edge of a scissors.

One day when the Christmas season was over, I showed up for work, not knowing I wasn’t supposed to be there. I had punched in on the time clock as usual. Charlie Daly came down to the wrapping desk from his office on the second floor and fixed me with a stem look. He usually cleared his throat before speaking to any of the people who worked there, and this time was no exception. I’m not sure who felt worse in this situation, he or I, especially when years later I found out he had gone to Eureka High School with my mother!

“Hammph,” he said. “Didn’t your sister tell you not to come in to work today?”

DIDN’T MY SISTER WHAT? screamed my thoughts inside my head!

“N-no, she didn’t,” I managed to stammer, twisting my clammy hands together and staring at the polished toes of his shoes, not knowing what to do. Sometimes it is truly painful to be young and unworldly. My sister might have forgotten to tell me, or she might have felt she couldn’t tell me such an awful thing.

The happy outcome of this was that Tillie Atwell, the office manager, took me under her wing, tested my change-making ability, and put me to work on the “tubes” — an invention designed to speed up service, eliminate theft, and drive cashiers crazy.

Pneumatic tubes serpentined to and from all the departments in the store, ending in the office where they opened onto a chute into two troughs on a long wooden table. There was room for four cashiers — two on each side. Our metal tills were designed to fit securely in a second row of troughs, one on each side of the tube troughs.

Each cashier started with fifty dollars in change in a till that was made up ahead of time, and locked and stored in the safe until a cashier needed it. When she received her till, she unlocked it, and it was her responsibility to count that till before she started using it and to balance it at the end of the day. When she went to lunch, or left her till for any reason, she locked it and kept the key. If it was short by more than a few cents, I think the shortage came out of her pay. We always balanced within a few cents. By that time the minimum wage was 50 cents an hour.

The store opened at 10 a.m., but employees were there by 9:45. We closed at 5:30, with an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks according to the law — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Lunches were in three shifts-the first at 11 a.m. — too early, in my estimation. As the extra help, I nearly always had to take that time. Then the whole afternoon dragged interminably. Each day, one of the cashiers had to stay on to take late sales and answer the switchboard while the others balanced their money and ran a tape of their sales slips. The late cashier then had to stay later to balance out.

Our pay was given to us in cash in small manila pay envelopes with little pay slips attached to them. When I went back to school at Humboldt State and could only work Saturdays, my pay for one day’s work was about $3.60, after taxes.

As sales were made throughout the store, the clerks would fill out sales slips, adding the 3 percent California State sales tax that was already figured out for them on a chart in each sales book. They made a note at the top of the sales slip of the amount of money paid, folded the slip and its carbon copy with the money into a cannister about eight inches long and three inches in diameter, and sent it on its way through the pneumatic system to us-the cashiers.

Once it reached the office, it announced its arrival by banging loudly as it spewed out the vacuum system, slid down the incline and landed in front of us. Whoever was closest or quickest grabbed it, twisted it open, and spilled the contents onto the narrow work space in front of the tills. We counted the money, checking to see if it agreed with the amount the clerk had filled in. If it didn’t agree, we phoned the clerk and returned the cannister intact for him or her to correct. Then when it came back, we made the change, kept the original sales slip for our till, and folded the carbon copy with the change back into the little cylinder and returned it to the department. The return vacuum tubes were in a double row of six, between and a little above us — 12 in all, numbered for each department. The cannisters had the department numbers on them too.

An additional tube had been added at the outside end of the rack of tubes, after the original system was installed. It was number thirteen-Boys’ Department-and was a little hard to reach if you happened to be on the switchboard, or sitting across from the switchboard that day. Number thirteen always made a high-pitched whistling noise whenever it was in use. We always knew when we were dealing with the Boys’ Department, long before the cannister arrived.

Once in a while we would receive a fifty-dollar bill, on more rare occasions, a one hundred-dollar bill. The average sales per till per day were about six or seven hundred dollars. During a Christmas season, I can remember taking in a little over one thousand dollars on very busy days. One time, someone was passing counterfeit twenty-dollar bills. We all got a lesson on how to identify them, and the whole office was in a turmoil for several days.

Cashiers also ran the switchboard, a quaint relic of the Victorian Age, or so it seems now in these electronic times. Then we thought it was a state-of-the-art system, and we all liked to work on the switchboard. But you must remember this was in the days of one telephone to a household, if people were lucky enough to have a telephone, and two or four party lines on many of those.

All the telephones in the store were routed through this board. Small metal-lined holes connected to wires inside the board. Two little lights, one red and one white were under each hole. The names of the departments and the people in the store with private telephones were fastened under their proper holes. These were Office Manager Tillie Atwell and Credit Manager Gladys Meline, among other telephones in the main office, and the Dalys —John S., Jack F., Cornelius D. and Charles.

There were four or five outside lines on the switchboard, and as the lights came on indicating an incoming call, the switchboard operator would plug a fabric-covered snake-like line into that hole, open the “key” and say in a sweet, musical voice,

“Good morning (or afternoon), Daly Brothers.”

Then she would bring up the corresponding cord and plug it into the department requested, close the key, and ring the phone. If she was not careful, she might push the key the wrong way, and ring in somebody’s ear — a no-no!

Some sales were not cash sales. Many people had charge accounts. When a charge sale came winging to us in one of the little cannisters, we had to call out the customer’s name loud and clear to Gladys Meline, the credit manager, whose desk was adjacent to the tube system. She would then okay it, or not. Other people in the office were qualified to okay charges if she was out or busy with a customer. Sometimes she would have to talk to customers on the telephone first, requesting that they please come to the office and pay a little on their bills before charging any more. Then she would okay a charge.

Gladys had a very difficult job and did it perfectly. Not only was she responsible for all the charge accounts at the store and for treating the customers tactfully and carefully, she had to keep four giddy young girls in line on the tubes. Not an easy task.

When things were slow, we liked to talk to pass the time. This was forbidden. It was not business-like. If we had no change to make, we must busy ourselves with making sure all our charge slips were filed in alphabetical order. At billing time, we were put to work stuffing envelopes with statements and fliers for perfume or lingerie. Then, if we STILL had nothing to do, we had to go through stacks of old cash sales slips to make sure a charge slip had not been accidentally included in the stack. BORING! BORING! BORING! But one day I found one! I actually found a charge slip that had been inadvertently filed with the cash slips. I don’t remember anyone else ever finding one. It seemed to make it all worthwhile somehow.

Sometimes when I came in on a Saturday, I was given the task of addressing all the statements with a hand-cranked machine. Names and address of charge customers were stenciled with a ribbonless typewriter on small cards with silkscreen-like centers. The little silk-screens had to be stacked so they would feed into the machine, along with the statements. Some sort of ink-rolling mechanism picked up the ink, spread it across the silk-screen and then printed it on the statement paper as I turned the crank. This was a long, laborious hand process but faster than typing each statement individually. It usually took the better part of a Saturday to do all the addresses. Now a computer would do that in minutes.

I continued to work at Daly Brothers through four years of college at Humboldt State, every Saturday, every school holiday and every summer vacation, except one summer that I spent working at Benbow Inn, near Richardson’s Grove. Usually I spent my lunch hour in the lunchroom reading and eating a cheese sandwich and apple that I brought from home to save money, because I saw too many things I wanted to buy in the store. Even with my ten percent store discount, less than four dollars a day didn’t go far.

A 1946 Daly’s newspaper ad encouraged women to purchase hats.

In 1947, a French designer decided women needed a new look and dropped hemlines to mid-calf. All my short, material-conserving wartime skirts were suddenly out-of-date! For some strange reason, short skirts actually looked indecent. The huge sloppy wartime sweaters that revealed six inches of pleated skirt coming to just above the knees were replaced by short formfitting sweaters and long straight skirts that were difficult to walk in, even with short slits up the sides, front, or back. Dresses had skirts with yards and yards of material. Brown and white saddle shoes and bobby-sox gave way to white buck saddle shoes and ankle socks rolled down to show anklebone.

Even my good wool coat was too short. I cut the coat off to make a jacket, but it looked like a coat-cut-off-to-make-a-jacket. I was forced by fashion to buy a new-look coat on my meager earnings, paying for it a little at a time. I did manage to buy one good long, wool, straight, ankle-length skirt and two short sweaters.

The new coat was black wool gabardine and cost eighty dollars. Think how many Saturdays I had to work to pay for it! Five months of Saturdays, and more. The coat had a scalloped yoke in the front and back, from which flowed princess-style gores that flared out below the waist into a huge skirt. It wasn’t even a warm coat, but it was in fashion. I’m not sure if I was allowed to charge it and just turn my pay envelope back to the store each week, or if I put it on layaway.

I do remember when I finally wore my beautiful new black coat to work, I hung it carefully on the employees’ coat rack with dozens of similar coats. When it was time to go home. my coat was gone. Someone had taken it, thinking it hers. As I was fighting tears, the girl who took it came back into the coat room after realizing her mistake. What a relief it was to get that coat back!

When I was starting my junior year at Humboldt State, the store offered me a full-time job at the fabulous salary of one hundred dollars a month! I was tempted to take it because I was tired of scraping by with only two sweaters and one skirt to my name. But I decided to finish my education, and in another two years graduated with a teaching credential and was able to earn three hundred dollars a month.

Daly Brothers was very good to work around my schedule. I had the opportunity to know some wonderful people. Tillie Atwell was a mother to everyone-her own large family and the “store family,” as well as being a very sharp, astute businesswoman and accountant. Gladys Meline. with her red hair and strict rules, is a legend in the store. Agnes did the billing on a huge dinosaur of a billing machine. I’m sorry I can’t think of her last name. Francis King worked in the office during that time. We discovered that we were cousins of the same cousin — though we are not related to each other. I still hear from her at Christmas. Pat Farrar was a cashier. I can’t remember the names of the other cashiers, except one whose last name was Mackle. Ella Marie Fanucchi also worked in the office. I think she was in charge of the few cash registers scattered throughout the store in areas that were not convenient to the tube system. Another girl, whose name was Holly or Polly something, worked in the office to help her husband pay off a twenty-five thousand dollar debt on his logging truck. Something had happened to the truck, and he still owed that much money on it. This was a huge sum, when the minimum wage was fifty cents an hour, but they both worked hard and paid it off.

Tillie’s daughter, Anita Atwell, worked in sales. Santina “Sandy” Del Grande worked in the Center Aisle, Impeccably dressed, with perfect nails, hair and makeup, and high heels. I could never understand how she could stand there hour after hour in heels. Meta Huddleson worked in Lingerie. My older sister, Pat Roberts, worked in the office before she started her family and after her boys were old enough to go to school. My younger sister, Betty Olsen, worked in the Beauty Salon, after graduating from Beauty College. And my sister-in-law, Pat Gipson, worked in sportswear.

Although the noise of the “tubes” nearly drove me to distraction at times, I shall always appreciate having had the opportunity to work at Daly’s and make a little extra money while going to school. The closing of this store is like the closing of another era — a time gone the way of that Victorian switchboard.

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The story above was originally printed in the Summer 1996 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.

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