Take Me to Kaufmann's: The Big Store

Kaufmann’s department store made itself part of many holiday seasons in Pittsburgh.

My friend Claudia Korol called to tell me about two booklets she found among the postcards and printed papers collected by her late husband, Paul. “They’re Christmas readers—full of poems and stories, “ she said. “You have to see them.

“They’re beautiful Victorian booklets with colorful covers, one from 1905 and one from 1907. And they’re both ‘dedicated to the children of Pittsburgh,’ although one spells it without the ‘h.’ They’re from Kaufmann’s with a color picture of ‘The Big Store’ on the back covers.”

So, I went and saw them. They’re handsome little picture books from the days when shopping downtown in big department stores was an essential holiday experience. The inside pages are printed on cheaper paper, like a coloring book, with illustrated poetry and prose for kids from pre-school through the elementary grades.

There are silly bears on toboggans and a beautifully drawn chimpanzee photographer taking pictures of a well-dressed family of Victorian hippos! A two-cookie robbery in Snowbirdville is the subject of another cartoon (which, I’m not sure, might have a hidden political meaning). One of the booklets has a children’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There are very few Santa Clauses and no birth of baby Jesus stories at all, yet both books bear the same title: “Kaufmann’s Sunday School Greeting.” I tried to investigate if Kaufmann’s might have had a Sunday school (unlikely since the store wasn’t open on Sundays), and I found many people’s department-store memories written for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in summer 2006, when the store was changing its name to Macy’s. Someone wrote of a doctor’s office and hospital in the store, but no one mentioned Sunday schools or religious training of any sort.

I called the Library & Archives department at the Heinz History Center, and the always-helpful Art Louderback told me that they, too, had seven or eight of these Christmas books as well as others with non-holiday themes like pets. “They gave them out free to Sunday schools,” said Louderback, “to get some publicity and to remind kids to go shopping at Kaufmann’s.” I hadn’t considered the possibility of a clever church-based distribution plan!

A little Christmas book from Kaufmann’s just makes me think of the old book department on the first floor of the store, right beside the Tic Toc Restaurant. Sometimes we’d wait by the tables and shelves of books for my Aunt Mary and Aunt Ann, who often met us for lunch there, especially at Christmastime when we were shopping with Mom.

Even today, in the place now called Macy’s, I still love browsing at Bradley’s Book Attic up on the ninth floor, where my buddy Lisa Kane always has suggestions. And I should get there this month because there are kids on my list who are going to receive books from a department store, even if that’s an old-fashioned notion. I guess the little Christmas books from 1905 and 1907 can still do what they were intended to do: get me into “The Big Store.”

Categories: Rick Sebak