The muffled swish of the revolving door instantly silenced the din of South Main Street, the floorboards creaked underfoot, and the lunch counter aromas sent tantalizing signals to your stomach. You were in a different world; you were in McWhirr’s.
The R.A. McWhirr Company, Fall River’s iconic department store, which closed in 1975, less than two years short of its one-hundreth birthday, was a Mecca to generations of area shoppers.
Before the proliferation of cookie-cutter suburban malls, downtown—as it was called in Fall River—was the shopping destination, and borrowing a term from modern-day mall-speak, McWhirr’s was the “anchor store.” According to Fall River Historical Society curator, Michael Martins, “Everybody has a McWhirr’s story.”
Robert Armstrong McWhirr first sailed into New York harbor aboard a Cunard liner from his native Scotland in 1873. Relying on his retail experience with a Glasgow merchandiser, the twenty-three-year-old easily found employment with fellow Scotsmen at the Callender, McAusland, and Troup, department store in Providence, Rhode Island.
Despite the camaraderie of his countrymen, it took less than year for the young McWhirr to determine that his prospects were limited at the large Providence store. Restless and ambitious, in 1874, he quickly moved on to a job with Fall River retailer, E.S. Brown Co. It was there he met Sarah E.R. Ramsay, the store’s manager of ribbons and lace goods and a popular church singer in the city.
Soon, McWhirr discovered that his business ambitions were only exceeded by Ramsay’s, and in 1877, they bid goodbye to Mr. Brown and immediately became his competitors. The lady received top billing as Ramsay and McWhirr set up shop in an 1100-square-foot rented storefront on Charity Lane, only a few yards removed from their former employer’s South Main Street location—Charity Lane, also known as Chapel Street because of the proximity of the nineteenth-century Church of the Ascension, extended west from South Main Street to Pearl Street.
The joint venture was short lived. Only four years later, although remaining an employee of the company, Miss Ramsay retired from the partnership. In 1882, McWhirr took on a new partner in Alexander Thomson, an experienced retail manager from the dry goods firm of Stewart and Hammerton. Renamed McWhirr and Thomson, the new partnership expanded their floor space that same year with a brick addition to the rear of the wood framed store.
In 1886, perceiving the city’s population expanding northward, E.S. Brown moved his department store, then the city’s largest, from its South Main Street location to new quarters at the corner of North Main and Pine Streets. Skeptical of Brown’s perceived population shift, Robert McWhirr convinced his new partner that this was a golden opportunity for expansion. Soon, they were installing their first fixtures in the newly vacated building even as Brown was removing the last of his. The upgrade tripled McWhirr’s floor space in what would become the store’s last and permanent address, 75 South Main Street.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1893, forty-three-year-old founder, Robert Armstrong McWhirr died. In May of that year, the R.A. McWhirr Company was re-organized by a trio of long-term employees affectionately known by their entry-level, original titles: “The Three Cash Boys.”
Ten years later, under President Asa A. Mills, Superintendent James H. Mahoney, and Secretary Richard S. Thompson, the store continued its expansion by leasing Robert McWhirr’s original building back across Charity Lane. Only one year later, in 1904, after extensive litigation and contentious negotiations with abutting property owners, McWhirr’s acquired Charity Lane from the city. The entire street soon disappeared into the McWhirr footprint as the firm again expanded by erecting an uninterrupted storefront along newly joined South Main Street.
Surviving both the devastating 1916 fire to its south, and the 1928 conflagration that consumed much of the city’s business district to its north, McWhirr’s continuously remodeled throughout the early 1900s. In its familiar, final configuration, the five story, white terra-cotta fronted building, eventually comprised 166 feet of frontage, housing over 120,000 square feet of floor space.
Lillian Toulan worked in McWhirr’s silverware department when in her twenties during World War II. “There certainly was no comparison to today’s Wal-Mart,” says the former salesgirl. Toulan fondly remembers overnight buying trips to Boston, Massachusetts, with her department manager, a Mrs. Mary Bassett. “We’d meet the buyers from Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, and Gilchrist’s,” says Toulan. “We always stayed in a nice hotel and ate at the best restaurants.”
In Toulan’s day, the workweek on McWhirr’s retail floor was Monday through Saturday, with Wednesday afternoons off, and a Saturday closing of 9 p.m. “Since we had an hour for lunch,” laughs Toulan, “in the summertime we’d sometimes sneak up to the roof to get a suntan.”
For almost seventy years, Toulan has kept a small manila pay envelope for the week ending August 1, 1942. In neatly penciled figures is her net pay for the week—$13.86 after fourteen cents was deducted for “Federal Old Age.”
According to Toulan, McWhirr’s silverware department always had a special role to play whenever dignitaries visited Fall River. “When big shots came to town,” she says, “their welcoming gift was usually sterling silver flatware in a nice chest.” Toulan specifically recalls such presentations made to President Harry S. Truman and Congressman Joe McCarthy.
Toulan has fond memories of McWhirr’s management. “The floorwalkers watched you all the time,” she says, “but you couldn’t help but like the bosses.” One boss in particular, Norman F. Thompson, whose father Richard was one of the original “Cash Boys,” seemed to have caught young Lillian’s eye.
“One day I told a couple of the girls that I was thinking of inviting Mr. Thompson home for dinner,” she says. Apparently this was quite an unusual step for a lowly salesgirl and Lillian’s co-workers were predictably dismissive. “They didn’t think I’d do it,” says Toulan, “and if I did, they didn’t think he’d accept. Well, I offered, he accepted, and my father cooked us pork chops. We had a lovely time; Norman was really down to earth.”
Long-time McWhirr’s customer, Ruth Hurley vividly recalls the store during the 1950s and 1960s. “My cousin, Eleanor R.M. Shea, was a buyer for some of McWhirr’s basement merchandise,” recalls Hurley. “Downstairs was an active place because many people entered and left the store through the back door off Pearl Street.” According to Hurley, McWhirr’s employees never used the words “seconds” or “discounts” when referring to the basement store. Rather, she says, McWhirr’s basement was simply the home of “less expensive lines.”
Before the advent of credit and debit cards, Hurley remembers the McWhirr’s in-store credit system. “Customers had these little metal discs about the size of a fifty-cent piece,” she says, “on one side was embossed “McWhirr’s” and on the other side was stamped a two, or three digit number. All you needed to do was show your disc to the clerk and the amount was added to the bill you received at the end of the month.”
“My cousin Eleanor told me that the employees often recognized regular customers by their numbers more than their names,” Hurley chuckled. It’s been said that like Massachusetts’ license plates, having a low numbered McWhirr’s charge disc was a Fall River status symbol.
“If you bought something at McWhirr’s in the morning you could have it delivered to your home by the afternoon,” adds Hurley. “They would even deliver wedding presents right to the reception on the day of the wedding.” In the 1950s, McWhirr’s operated a fleet of four vans traveling over 1600 miles weekly and averaging 10,000 deliveries monthly within a twenty-mile radius of the store.
Mike Walsh worked on McWhirr’s wrapping desk for a year in the early 1960s between his graduation from Durfee High School and his enrollment in Providence College. “As a store service, gift wrapping was free,” says Walsh. “I think somebody could have walked in with a package off the street and we would have wrapped it for them, no questions asked.”
“There was one guy who bought the cheapest matzoh balls we had at the cookie counter and had them gift wrapped for shipping every month,” remembers Walsh. “We always thought the wrapping paper was worth more than the matzoh balls.”
As a gag one morning before the store opened, Walsh secreted himself at the top of the chute leading to the basement shipping table. Closing the cover over him and folding his arms across his chest, there he lay when his co-worker, Emma Janson, opened the lid to deposit a package left over from the previous day.
“I laughed so hard at Emma’s surprise that I slid all the way down the wooden chute,” says Walsh, “I had to call my mother to take me to the emergency room to have the splinters removed from my rear end.”
In the mid-twentieth century, downtown Fall River was a busy retail destination all year round and McWhirr‘s was the centerpiece. At Christmastime, when the hustle and bustle was at its peak, the magnificently decorated store seemed to radiate a magical holiday aura. Ask anyone who visited the store’s North Pole Workshop, there was little doubt about one thing—sitting here on his elevated chair, more like a throne, actually, McWhirr’s Santa Claus was the real one.
Or maybe not. Like most Fall River children, long before he worked at the store, Mike Walsh visited the legendary McWhirr’s Santa during the Christmas holidays. “I once showed my uncle a photograph of me sitting on Santa’s lap,” says Walsh. “He takes a close look at it and says, ‘Hey, I know that guy, he does painting for me in the summer.’”
“Christmas was special at McWhirr’s,” remembers Lillian Toulan. “Mr. Burns always had the store decorated beautifully.”—John S. Burns was the store’s display manager during the 1940s and 1950s. “We even had a competition with Cherry’s next door to see who had the most attractive Christmas windows.”
Ruth Hurley also remembers a cherished McWhirr’s Christmas tradition. “Every year,” says Hurley, “the salesclerks would sew original Christmas costumes for dolls to be displayed in the store’s windows on either side of the main revolving door entrance.” According to Hurley, prizes would be awarded for the best dressed, and after the holidays, the moppets would be donated to charity, usually St. Vincent’s Orphanage or the Children’s Home on Robeson Street.
In recent years, part of the McWhirr’s Christmas tradition has been rekindled by the Fall River Historical Society. Since 2007, Curator Michael Martins and his staff have recreated the popular McWhirr’s candy counter in one of the Rock Street. mansion’s upstairs rooms. Including the store’s original candy scale and candy display stand, the display features such nostalgic delights as lumps of coal, Boston fruit slices, peppermint pigs, and that perennial Fall River favorite, nonpareils.
McWhirr’s boasted services simply not found in today’s big box mall department stores. Among many unique features, the store had its own United States Post Office branch as well as an extensive private lending library.
“My mother always went to the lending library just beyond the sewing machine department,” remembers Betsy Moore. “I got interested in supplementing my wardrobe by making my own clothes, so she bought a White machine for me—on time, of course—for my thirteenth birthday. Not only did McWhirr’s sell us a machine, they gave me lessons, too, and I was on my way,” adds Moore.
Pneumatic message tubes were introduced into department stores in the 1880s by John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia retail magnate. By the early 1900s McWhirr’s had installed its own elaborate air-actuated system that rapidly transferred cash and charge slips from the sales counters to the third floor offices. Except for the toy department, watching the “flying canisters” was often the highlight of a child’s McWhirr’s visit.
The store even had its own radio studio. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s in-house announcer, Ed Burke, would broadcast a midday program liberally sprinkled with store advertisements over local station WSAR.
Times have changed. In today’s big-box superstores, paperless computer networks have rendered pneumatic tubes obsolete, electronically coded credit cards have replaced numbered metal discs, and tiny digital surveillance cameras have all but driven the floorwalker to extinction.
Arguably, the modern retail environment is more efficient, but it all seems so coldly impersonal. More than merely a department store, R.A. McWhirr’s was a Fall River institution, a warm and friendly place where a sales clerk often knew your name, and in some cases, your number.
April 1, 2011
Fall River, Massachusetts
EXCERPTED FROM: Granite, Grit, and Grace: An Exploration of the Fascinating Side Streets of Fall River’s History (Fall River Historical Society Press, 2017). Purchase your copy online HERE!