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Filene's Basement: 1963

Filene's Basement: 1963

February 9, 1963. Boston, Massachusetts. "Pedestrians on Washington Street walking by Filene's department store." 35mm acetate negative by Thomas J. O'Halloran for the U.S. News & World Report assignment "Boston Commuter Experiment." View full size.


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Best way to get the automatic markdown:

If I could step into this photo, I'd probably find my grandmother in the Petites department, looking for bargains.

With the Automatic Markdown system, if something had been on the floor for a certain amount of time, it went 25% off. The following week, it was 50% off, then 75% the week after that. If it was still there after the 75% sale, it was donated to charity. I was a college student and managed to get a great looking designer label trench coat at 75% off.

Nana would find something she liked, and then take it and hide it on a rack in another department. She'd come back two weeks later and pick it out of its hiding place, and save a bunch of money!


The two young men walking into the street carrying the bags are apparently so excited and happy about witnessing the aisle of undressing and redressing that they plan on returning very soon.

George Chakiris

George Chakiris, appearing in the Charlton Heston movie at the Orpheum, won an Oscar in West Side Story. He attributes his appearance in White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney in the "You Didn't Do Right By Me" dance number as the key boost to his career.

Those three

Definitely agree with PhotoFan about those three on the left. In the crowd of pedestrians coming at us along the sidewalk, you’ll note an older guy giving them the once-over. Those three somehow look more to me like a trio of Brits in a photo from England in the same era.

Take your time, honey ...

I don't think anything nefarious is afoot with the three characters in front of the window ... with personal experience as a guide, I'd say they're just waiting for their wives to finish shopping in Feline's Basement.

Shocked and Confused

... is what I was. At about the time this photo was taken, I was tagging along with my mother on a shopping trip to Filene's Basement. Filene's Basement had no dressing rooms. Women would try on the merchandise right on the salesfloor. My 8-year-old eyes had never seen so many ladies in their bras and girdles.

Normal day at Downtown Crossing

Headquarters for bargains, rich or poor, and everywhere in between, Filene's Basement was frequented by all. If you were a learned shopper you could score bargains unheard of elsewhere. Automatic markdowns brought the price down to next to nothing over 30 days.

The Basement and its parent Filene's were part of a group of major retailers and smaller ones too. It was Mecca for shoppers, all within walking distance to each other and with the trains running below the street. All tracks led to Downtown Boston.

It's still there but a shadow of its former self.

The View Today

This is the same location today. The theater is behind the netting, and I think the entrance was moved to the other side of the building. Someone from Boston may know better.

There's still a little of the jewelry business left on Washington Street, to the right of the netting. Not much else remains.

Something's going down shortly

Those three with their backs to the store window are up to no good.

Voyeur's Delight

I first visited Boston in 1973. My parents lived in Boston for two years right after World War II, and Mum told me I had to be sure and go and check out Filene's bargain basement. Due to a lack of changing rooms, a woman would take off her dress in the aisle to try on a sale item. Sure enough, I saw a mother order her teenage daughter to take off her dress and see if a sale item would fit. At first the daughter resisted, but finally caved in and continued the tradition in the family.

I was in my 30s when I finally figured out that I was conceived in Boston; my parents returned to Toronto where I was born in 1947.

Loew's flippity flop

The Orpheum entrance has since been moved around to the back side, and the front entrance you see here is now retail. Mounting points for the sign and flagpole can still be seen on the facade.

Filene's as a destination, then and now

I first went down this sidewalk in the late '70s, and it looked pretty much as it does in the photo. (Outdoor February wear in Boston doesn't change too rapidly.)

Filene's pioneered off-price retailing, and shouldn't be blamed for all the crummy imitators. But the Boston location closed in 2007 and the chain entered a prolonged demise which may not be over yet. Though there have been no stores for years, a website encourages you to "sign up for emails."

The name Filene survives, however, as the performing-arts amphitheater in the Wolf Trap National Park outside Washington, DC. That honors Catherine Filene Shouse, granddaughter of the Filene chain's founder. She donated the property and built the amphitheater twice (it burned in 1982).

We'd go there!

When I was a kid living outside of Baltimore in the early '60s, Kresge's was one of the stores we shopped at. Getting lunch there was always a treat!

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