“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXI– Scarborough’s Department Store, 1893-1982.

In late December some friends and I took a day trip to San Antonio to see a couple art exhibitions. We finished early, and my friends wanted to stroll over to Alamo Plaza to snap some pictures of the Christmas decorations. Along the way, we passed Rivercenter Mall and the former home of the great department store, Joske’s of Texas, and I began holding forth, in my tiresome manner, about what Joske’s was like when I was a kid.

My parents used to go to San Antonio three times a year, twice for conventions, and once for summer vacations with me. Going to Joske’s was always a highlight of every trip. Joske’s occupied a huge, four-story Art Deco building, and to a child its many varied departments seemed a mini-encyclopedia of the world’s goods and services.

My mom would always make a major purchase in the housewares section, be it new pots and pans or silverware or china. My new school clothes, in garish, colorful “Brady Bunch” styles and cuts, would come from Joske’s. I would save up all year to buy lavish architecture books from the book department, and I’d always go look, but never buy, from the rare coin and collectible stamp departments. (Typing that right now fills me with joy to think a department store would ever have had such unusual things in stock as coins and stamps. Where, apart from maybe Harrod’s in London, could you find a department store like that today?)

Sadly, Joske’s was bought out by Dillard’s in the ‘80s, and a Dillard’s occupies the first and second floors of the old building. I think the third floor now houses a movie multi-plex, and the basement is now used for storage. There was a time when eager customers used to line up outside Joske’s in the morning, waiting for the doors to be unlocked, but not anymore.

I was at a collectible postcard show awhile back and got into a fascinating discussion with a dealer about the good old days when downtown was the place to be on the weekend in the cities of Texas. You’d get dressed up, do your shopping, go the movies–just really make a day of it. You could scarcely make your way down the sidewalks because they were so crowded with people. But now, go to any major downtown area in Texas on the weekend during the daytime and you’re likely to become groggy and sleepy from the quiet.

Austin’s major downtown department store for almost a century was Scarborough’s, which was located on the southwest corner of Sixth and Congress. That intersection still feels to me like the epicenter of downtown energy, even more the heart of Austin than the Capitol, but I bet when downtown was actually a shopping destination that area really hopped.

E. M. Scarborough started a store in Rockdale with R. H. Hicks in 1883, but they moved their business to Austin in 1893, operating out of 414-416 Congress. Their general store attracted such clients as sculptress Elisabet Ney, Governor James Hogg, society leader Julia Pease, and writer Will Porter (O. Henry).

On December 15,1893, Scarborough, Hicks, and Oliver Butterine experimented with night-time advertising, hiring a magic lantern to project stereo-opticon views from the roof of the old Samoltz (?) Building onto a piece of canvas stretched against the side of the First National Bank at Congress and Pecan (Sixth Street). According to a report the next day, “The views were quite novel and advertising slides were quite liberally interlarded among. It amused a good crowd for quite awhile.” (I’ve seen much the same thing on building facades at dot-com launch parties.)

Apparently subtlety in advertising wasn’t popular in those days. One newspaper ad read “Scarborough & Hicks! SHOES! FOR CASH. You Want Them!”

In 1894 Scarborough & Hicks moved to 512-520 Congress, at the southwest corner of 6th and Congress. The new location afforded the business 110 feet of frontage and made Scarborough & Hicks the fifth-largest retailer in Texas.

E. M. Scarborough had the good sense to set up a bank account in New York so he could deal directly with manufacturers, rather than wholesalers. He established a credit system so local cotton farmers could make their annual purchases regardless of how their crops turned out. He put price tags on every item in the store, putting an end to the costly and often unfair practice of price haggling. Soon other retailers in Austin adopted price tags in order to compete with Scarborough.

Alfred Schmitz, who worked for the store from 1906 until at least the 1970s, said Mr. Scarborough once saw a group of newspaper boys selling papers outside the store. Though it was 32 degrees outside the boys were barefoot. This bothered Scarborough so much he told Schmitz to bring the boys into his office and fit them all out for new pairs of shoes.

In 1909 the store moved into a new structure designed by Sanguinet and Staats, a Ft. Worth firm that designed UT’s Helen Kirby Dormitory (now the Kirby Hall School) and “Thistle Hill,” the Wharton-Scott mansion in Ft. Worth, home of ranching heiress Electra Waggoner Wharton. For awhile the eight-story building was the tallest commercial structure in Austin, until size-conscious Major G. W. Littlefield added another story to the building that bears his name, across the street from Scarborough’s.

After the death of R. H. Hicks, E. M. Scarborough bought out the Hicks heirs and in 1913 “Scarborough & Hicks’ Mammoth Cash Store” became “E. M. Scarborough and Sons,” though locals usually just called it “Scarborough’s.”

In his early years with Scarborough’s shoe salesman Alfred Schmitz did a little bit of everything, sweeping floors, hitching up customer’s horses outside, and decorating the street-level windows (then a narrow six feet) with boxes covered with crepe paper. His main job, though, was in the Ladies’s Shoe Department. He regularly had to climb to the top of a rolling ladder to reach the space where the shoes were stored, then lug ten or twelve boxes down at once. Sometimes he’d push the ladder too hard and get stuck up in the storage level with no way to get down. At least it was easy to keep track of the stock, since there were basically only two styles of women’s shoes available in the store–lace-up oxfords and high-button pumps, in either black or brown.

The store’s elevators provided no end of problems. Women with babies and young children would often find their little darlings too scared to ride in the elevators, so the long-suffering Schmitz had to carry them (the children, not the mothers) up the stairs. At least he didn’t have to deal with those enormous, aisle-wide urban assault strollers so popular with the self-absorbed parents of today.

One day, when the circus was in town, a farm couple came to the store to do their annual shopping. The couple spotted the elevator grille door, opened it, and stepped inside, expecting to be automatically transported to another floor without doing anything. The elevator was apparently of the old metal cage variety. The couple didn’t notice that the elevator was actually descending right then. They would have been crushed underneath it had Mr. Scarborough not been walking by at the time and yelled at elevator operator Schmitz to stop the cab.(You’d think there is a situation comedy or comic novel to be derived somehow from young Schmitz’s misadventures in Mr. Scarborough’s store, but Schmitz became the store’s most valued employee, waiting on four generations of customers.)

E. M. Scarborough ran the business until his death in 1925, when he was succeeded by his sons J. W. and Lemuel. In 1931 the building was redone in the Art Deco style, and the shop windows were greatly enlarged.

It should surprise no one that the old Scarborough’s ads are quite fun to read:

“Girls’ Play Suits–2.98–Play suits beloved by all Texas maids, because they are so cool, comfortable, and smart….

“Boys’ overalls–79c & 1.00–Put ‘Sonny’ in overalls this summer…they allow him full benefit of the healthful Texas sun….(Yeah, you wouldn’t want him to miss out on a treat like that.)

“Blankets–Timeliness should weigh with reason. Weather indications suggest the necessity of warm bedding. Do not wait until the last cold spell to buy your blankets, with the hope that some merchant will be compelled to close out at cost….    

“Stationery–White vellum, with tan etchings of scenes and of famous men of Texas history. $1.00….        

“For Little Boys–Locomotives, 18c to 98c, …Swords, 20c, Trumpets, 3c to 25c, Express Wagons, 75c….

“For Little Girls–Iron Stoves, 20c to 45c, Wash Sets, 25c to 45c, Tea Sets, 12c to 40c, …Dinner Sets, 10c to 40c….

“College Students or Young Men–Smoking Jackets, $4.25 to $7.75, …Ascot Ties, $1.00 to $1.50, …Tuxedo Suit, $28.00, …Knox Silk Opera Hat, $6.00 to $8.00….(So, in 75 years we’ve gone from young men wearing smoking jackets and Ascots to Birkenstocks and dirty sideways baseball caps. Draw your own conclusions there.)

“Sewing Classes for Little Girls–The Art Department is solving the worry of what to do in the long vacation months. This is the delightful plan: Every Tuesday and Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30 o’clock,  free instructions in embroidering will be given to the girls over 8 years of age. The only stipulation is that you buy your materials in the Art Department.

“Boys’ ‘Going-Away’ Suits Reduced–Formerly $12.50 to $22.50–$9.75 to $17.50.” (I don’t know what a “going-away” suit is, but if I had any proof such things actually worked, I can think of a lot of people I’d like to buy them for.)

Starting in the 1930s, Scarborough’s got involved in something called “Made-In-Texas Week.” This wasn’t a sales gimmick–rather, from the ads left behind it sounds more like a trade show and special exhibition, spread throughout the store’s four floors:

“In the Downstairs Store–…Dr. Pepper Bottling Company, …Walker’s Chile Products, …Easy Aid Kitchen Utensils Demonstration, …Boys’ Guessing Contest (I’m not going to touch that one), …Display of Centennial Hats.

“On The Street Floor–Historical Texas Scenes in Miniature, …Texas Building Stones and Mineral Exhibit, …Golden Spray Moth Killer Demonstration, …Collection of early Texas Relics and Firearms, courtesy of J. Frank Dobie and Dr. W. P. (Walter Prescott) Webb, …Display of steps in the manufacture of Boots, courtesy Nocona Mfg. Company, ….

“On The Second Floor–Original movie dresses worn by Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Allen, and Norma Shearer, …Miniature house and garden, …Austin Boy Scout exhibit, …Wool and Mohair Exhibit….

“On The Third Floor–Curtain Manufacturing Booth, …Mattress Manufacturing Booth, …Display of Petroleum, courtesy of Engineering Dept. of University of Texas….”

And as if this array of “Made-In-Texas” activities and exhibits wasn’t enough, the store would also host such entertainment as live hillbilly bands, dance teams, and movie screenings.

During the Christmas season in World War II Scarborough’s gave away little pocket-sized notebooks, scarcely larger than a Zippo lighter, so their customers could jot down what they had bought for which family member and at what price. The booklet also included suggestions for appropriate gifts for men, women, boys, girls, and babies.

When I was researching this column at the Austin History Center, I came across some sales training booklets used at Scarborough’s in the postwar “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” years:

“To be a successful salesperson, you must master the art of showing merchandise, for just by your presentation can you elevate a trinket to a treasure–or reduce a treasure to a trinket. In showing hosiery, for instance, you cannot expect your customer to get enthusiastic over a dozen pair folded up in a box. How much more stimulating to a customer’s imagination when the saleswoman carefully selects a pair of hose, gently slips her hand into one stocking, and admiringly points out their gossamer sheer quality, the fashionable shade, the highly stylized heel. (Easy now, cowboy.)…

“If you can get your product into action–that is, imitate actual conditions under which it will be used–customer interest will be heightened. For instance, when a customer is looking at yard goods for a dress, take out a bolt and drape a yard or two over your shoulder. When ties are selected, hold several up against a shirt. When hand cream is the product, rub a little on the back of your customer’s hand.”

In 1951, Austin was still a fairly small city, with Anderson Lane and St. Edward’s University its northern and southern borders, respectively, but the postwar prosperity and the population boom wrought changes in Austin. People were moving into Austin who had no roots in the area, no habits developed by generation after generation living in one place.

Suburbs were constructed, and with them, shopping malls. Downtown ceased to be a shopping destination–after all, why make a trip downtown and struggle to find a parking place when you could get what you wanted at a shopping center with a huge parking lot just minutes from your home?

Scarborough’s opened a branch store at Highland Mall in the 1970s, but by 1982 the old downtown store was struggling. It could no longer maintain a staff of several hundred employees, nor could it attract more than a small group of faithful longtime customers. It closed its doors in December 1982, after Christmas. The Scarborough Building is now home to a variety of offices, as well as Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

The Scarborough’s name still flourishes at a boutique in the Central Park Shopping Center, at 4001 North Lamar.

Journalist Kirk Ladendorf wrote, “In a few years, Austin’s downtown will be vastly changed. There will be new office buildings, new stores, and new residents in the hotels, condominiums, and apartments proposed in and near downtown. Developers say the area will be alive again, but the old Scarborough’s store won’t be alive to see it.”

I should point out that the above passage was written in 1982, not 2006, but it sounds virtually interchangeable with the things we read today. New office buildings and condos were built in downtown Austin in the 1980s, just as they are being built in the 2000s (albeit not at the same scale and rate).

Downtown Austin may become a popular place to live and shop again, but we are not going to recreate the same environment and vibe that downtown had in, say, the 1940s, during the glory days of Scarborough’s. Living and shopping habits have changed too much for that to happen.

The single-family dwellings closest to downtown Austin have for the most part been either torn down and replaced with commercial structures or converted into lawyer’s offices. Most downtown residents will have to live in apartments and condos, and as such will be either well-paid young professionals or successful empty-nesters, as the lifestyle is basically unaffordable to lower-middle and working-class people, and families with young children for some reason refuse to shake the notion that children absolutely must grow up in the suburbs. (I have a friend who is still mad that his dad passed on a chance to buy a ritzy high-rise apartment in Houston in the ‘60s. My friend fantasized about growing up like the kids on “Family Affair,” in a New York penthouse with an English butler.)

Department stores still exist, but they are no longer as important as they were sixty years ago. And shopping online is also having an effect. It seems the focus in brick-and-mortar stores is now to offer more specialized goods and less of what our great-grandparents called “general merchandise.”

The thrill of shopping is very much alive and well, but the idea of a department store in a centralized, downtown part of a city serving as a sort of community center has passed away. Curiously enough, that role seems to have been taken over in some degree by large bookstores and gourmet grocery stores–not that I’m complaining.

—February 23, 2006


2 thoughts on ““Austin Askew”–Chapter XXI– Scarborough’s Department Store, 1893-1982.

  1. I just found a price tag on a set of pins given to me by my grandmother (a Texas native) with the “Scarborough and Sons” name on it. I was very curious to learn more. Thanks for the info 🙂

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