Sunday, March 25, 2007


Imagine a room with wall-to-wall females of all ages, packed in like sardines and each one vying for the best bargain available. The scenario is not all that uncommon in this day and age, but it was unheard of in the early 20th century. At that time “Sales” were fairly civil affairs and, more often than not, they were held on specific days or at the same time of each year.

This all changed in 1908 when Edward A. Filene came up with the idea of selling surplus and overstocked merchandise in the basement of his father’s department store in Boston. In 1909 Filene’s “Automatic Bargain Basement” opened it’s doors and it was an immediate success.

I was 16 when I made my first visit to the famous discount store. This was in 1949 and I waited in line until the doors opened. It took all my strength to hold my own against the push of all those bodies. Once inside I elbowed my way to one of the tables and was thrilled to see a peach colored cashmere sweater. It was a brand name in my size and at an incredibly good price. I held it high in front of me to inspect for flaws & before I knew it a hand reached out and snatched it from my grasp. I was so surprised that I didn’t even try to see where it went.

This was not an auspicious beginning and I decided to step back and reconnoiter. I saw that the savvy shoppers had large Filene shopping bags. They would quickly scan a table and shove anything that seemed of interest into the bag. When they had their fill they would retire to the end of the room where large mirrors were hung. Then they would take their time inspecting their choices…keeping everything close and out of reach from the other shoppers.

Now I had the maneuver down pat and, at the end of the day I’d spent very little and had quite a bit to show for it. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was worth it. I was exhausted and I realized that both my dignity and my body were bruised. I was glad to say that I’d visited the famous Filene’s Bargain Basement but I never went back.

It is interesting to note that Edward A. Filene not only devised a new way of shopping but he also introduced practices in the workplace that we take for granted today, such as: the 40-hour work week, Minimum wage, Profit sharing plans and Medical Insurance for workers. He was truly a pioneer in his field.


Blogger kenju said...

I once saw a documentary about Filene's and their famous wedding dress sale. It was bedlam! I have always wanted to go there, but I have yet to make it to Boston. Someday.....

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so sorry this year not to be able to go to Filene's Basement any longer. It used to be one of the highlights of shopping every time I visited with my friends in Boston!

11:50 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

I know this threatens my femaleness
(is that a word?) =) but I hate to shop. I hit Filene's basement only once, many years ago, and it scared the you know what out of me. The women were obsessed, positively crazed, and I ran outside to wait for my friends.

But then, I dislike crowds with a passion, and should have known better!

5:18 AM  
Blogger KGMom said...

Ginnie--a great recounting of an American obsession. Combine shopping with super-bargain with crowds and you get Filene's.
You are so right that today folks think this uncivil kind of behavior is deemed "normal" but was not at one time.
Since someone grabbed the peach sweater, did you ever find one like it? Or was it lost forever?

5:38 AM  
Blogger thailandchani said...

I was also 16 or so when I visited Filene's basement. Oh, heaven! There is no bargain worth that! Like Pam, I really don't enjoy shopping and don't do well in crowds. Still, it was a good experience for a teenage girl to have. LOL



10:20 AM  
Blogger Suzy said...

I read about Filene's in National Geographic as a teen, and got a chance to go as a young college student. I too hate shopping, so it was hard to see what the big deal was, and now we're immersed in T.J. Maxx and all those places, so it hardly seems special. I did buy a little shirt there though. I think it cost $3.00.

I'm excited when I find a great thrift shop bargain now. And still only $3.00!

3:11 PM  
Blogger dmmgmfm said...

I saw the same documentary as Kenju. It was actually quite frightening!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Cazzie!!! said...

"Now I had the maneuver down pat and, at the end of the day I’d spent very little and had quite a bit to show for it"...

yes, Iam the same here too. I have been on many a shoppoing spree tour at the end of the year, near Christmas, to get some bargains at wholesale prices. I have learnt to know my prices before going in, and know if I am getting a deal or not and going for broke if I see something that is quality aswell as cheaper. I missed going to one last year, maybe I will go this year :)

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post SO much! As soon as I saw the photo, I thought, "Filene's Basement" and sure
Coming from the Boston area, I've made many visits there and it was always fun. Exhusting, but fun. And you are SO right....they literally grab items from your hands if not careful.
Great post!

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband volunteered at the Boston Park Service in Boston and the most popular place people asked about was FILENE'S Basement.

The second most popular place the tourist wanted to know about was "CHEERS."

With all the historic sights to see, Filene's Basement and Cheers beat them all!!

Filene's Basement is nothing like what it used to be with all the competition from discount stores.

Claude - You didn't miss anything by not getting to Filene's.

2:51 PM  

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