“Take a look in the Five and Ten
Glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow”
As a kid, there was no other store that made me more excited about Christmas than the 5 & 10 Cent stores! We were so lucky to have three stores to choose from in our area. We not only had the G.C.Murphy on South First Street in Duquesne, but we also had two gems in McKeesport. G.C. Murphy and H.L. Greens were both located on 5th Avenue and were epicenters for Christmas spirit in the city. Although I remember bits and pieces of the Murphy’s on South First in Duquesne, my strongest recollections are with the two Five and Dimes in McKeesport.
We would spend hours at the 5 & 10 at Christmas time. It always felt so warm inside. The store windows had bright and festive displays which were difficult to see sometimes since they always seemed to quickly fog-up when it was sold outside. That was actually part of the charm of the store.
I don’t remember any front checkout lines as you see today. Each counter had its own cash register and its own attentive sales staff. I remember being under the scrutiny of many a salesgirl (as they were called) to be sure I didn’t mess-up the counter. They were fastidious about keeping their counters neat and orderly. I recall the year I was buying my mom some nice hankies. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old and was checking out the prices and the assortment at the counter in H.L.Green’s. The lady behind the counter immediately made her way over to me when she saw me reaching for the neat pile of folded hankies. I was greeted with a rather stern sounding “May I help you young man?” In retrospect, she obviously thought of herself as the “Hankie Gestapo of H.L.Green’s.” Needless to say, my arms immediately retreated to my sides, and I told her I wanted to buy some pretty handkerchiefs for my mom. She asked me a series of questions about my mom’s favorite colors, flowers, etc. and determined the perfect choice for me. She was right on, I knew Mom would love the hankies with the blue Morning Glories embroidered on them. For a mere 50¢ each, I was able to purchase 3 hankies for my mom, have them loving wrapped in tissue paper and place in a box. The salesgirl told me the total was $1.50 which she punched into the cash register; I paid and was quickly on my way.
Buying for my dad was a simpler process and one that was free of the pressure of having to deal with a salesgirl. It meant a quick trip to any number of places that sold tobacco products. I remember going up to the counter in Elise’s (aka Avenue News) or perhaps Hilltop Dairy and buying my dad some Mail Pouch Tobacco and some rolling papers. He obviously used to roll his own cigarettes. In those days, there were no laws that restricted the sale of tobacco products to kids. The messages regarding the health risks as well as using rolling papers for anything other than creating cheaper cigarettes was unheard of.
It appears I’ve gotten a bit off of subject with buying my dad’s gift, so let’s get back to the 5 & 10. There’s a part of my Christmas visits to Murphy’s or Green’s that I don’t have a strong recall of. Based on what my Aunt Mary told me, she and my mom would take us to McKeesport to have our pictures taken with Santa at one of the 5 & 10s. It must not have been too traumatic of an event for me since I really don’t remember every doing it. It may have been that my big brother was always in the pictures with me, so I must have felt safe. Or, Santa may have promise to share a cookie or something with me if I took the picture. Whatever the reason was, I still enjoy looking at those old pictures with Santa and I cherish the memories they evoke.
I decided that I need to conduct another poll among yunz! (Yes, I said it…. YUNZ!) I am curious about your favorite Christmas carol/song. I’m asking that you pick two, the first being your favorite religious/traditional selection and the second being your favorite non-religious/popular choice. My favorite religious carol would be “O Holy Night.” My favorite non-religious song and my reason for discussing it in the middle of this post is because the song is “Silver Bells,” and it has a LOT to do with the subject of this post.
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Meeting smile after smile
And on ev’ry street corner you’ll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city
Ring a ling hear them sing
Strings of street lights
Even stop lights
Blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures
Hear the snow crunch
See the kids bunch
This is Santa’s big scene
And above all this bustle you’ll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing
Soon it will be Christmas day.
Every time I hear this song, it reminds of those times when I was in downtown McKeesport, shopping with my mom and flitting between the 5 & 10’s. When we were shopping in downtown McKeesport, there was so much positive energy and holiday spirit. The bags that people carried were emblazoned with the store’s name on them. They weren’t generic white plastic bags, but rather proudly displayed the store logo like Jaison’s, Katzman’s, Cox’s, Immel’s, Kadar’s, National Record Mart and more.
I recall one time that instead of my mom, my dad took me to McKeesport one evening. I experienced McKeesport from a whole different perspective during that trip. As busy and exciting as the stores and the city were during the daytime hours, everything turned magical in my eyes that evening. Lights sparkled everywhere, store windows seemed so much brighter and the hustle and bustle was so much more pronounced than during the day. I remember that it was VERY cold the evening my dad and I shopped. In fact, there were whisps of snow flurries in the air. We literally were immursed in the lyrics of the song “Silver Bells.” From that evening forward, my dad and I made an annual evening shopping trip to McKeesport every year until it no longer was possible due to the economics of the downtown McKeesport area.
I remember how some store, like Cox’s, NRM and Jaison’s played Christmas carols that could be heard from the street, as if they were luring you into their stores. Once inside, you were enveloped in Christmas spirit and customer service. In those days, very few departments were self-serve. People actually worked in specific departments. They did just spend their time stocking shelves and racks, they actually helped you find what you were looking for. You didn’t have to carry around your selection and hunt for a place to pay for it, nor did you put your selection into a grocery cart and have to push it to a checkout line where they would ultimately wad it up and stuff it into a plastic bag directly underneath the loaf of bread you were buying. Instead, price tags were removed from items that were then lovingly folded, placed in a box if you desired and then carefully placed into a bag.
Downtown Duquesne and McKeesport are vastly different from when I was a child. The stores are gone, even the buildings have disappeared. However, the single thing that can never be taken away are the warm memories that are forever etched in your mind.
Now, take a few minutes and tell us your favorite carols. It’ll only take you a few minutes. By the way, I didn’t include “The 12 Days of Christmas” as one of the choices since I have never met anyone who ever liked the song…. or fruitcake for that matter!!
I remember Green’s and Murphy’s being special at Christmas time. But I also remember Balsamo’s…because around Christmas time that is where my mom always bought the ingredients for her special holiday cookies. I spent many a day after school waiting near the train station next to Balsamo’s, for the trains to clear. But the wait was never so long in December, because the Christmas decorations always seemed comforting. I seem to remember that Oddo’s was near this major “intersection”. I had a fondness for the soda counter at Greens, because I liked one of the girls that worked there.
This is a wonderful article. I was born and raised in McKeesport, but my family was from Duquesne. I went to my Grandma house on Ferndale St in Duquesne every Sunday for many, years. I moved away 30 years ago, but the memories of all the stores and shopping in McKeesport, going to the Memorial Theatre, and having a hot dog at Sams still bring happiness to me. I really miss those days and those simple times.
Hope this isn’t too off topic but I keep thinking about your Nov. 25th post with the “Letters to Santa” that used to be printed in the papers. I had to read them- what did boys and girls want back then?
One has been in my thoughts- a letter from a little Madeline Ruhe. She lives with her grandmother, she writes, and she wants Santa to bring her gloves, hankerchiefs and galoshes?
Either she was a most mature seven year old or grandma wrote that letter. I keep wondering- were there any toys under the tree for that little girl? Or did she wake up Christmas morning and go, Oh boy! Galoshes!? Poor kid!
Thinking about all the stuff in the stores at Christmas when I was small- I do miss those five and tens with their wooden floors…
Miss BT – As I research and find more and more of these letters to Santa, it is amazing how much they requests from the children coincide with the world around them. Since Little MIss Ruhe’s letter was written in 1921, it must have been based on need. Most of the requests from the turn of the century up until just about the late 1940’s, contained requests many “practical” items. It wasn’t until the 50’s that the “want list” became mostly focused on TOYS – TOYS – TOYS! – Jim
What a wonderful trip down memory lane!! Those images of Christmas Time in McKeesport have always remained with me, no matter when in the USA I have lived. And…I think my sister, Donna, and I have a picture with the same Santa Claus! That was so long ago….but still so real!
We did our shopping at Murphy’s and Greens, as well. As young girls, we bought Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder and bobby pins for our mother, Dorothy Fiddler Maydew. And for Dad, (Victor Maydew), we’d get him sandpaper and nails!! that tradition of small, functional gifts still exists in our families.
I remember caroling through the streets of Grandview…and getting hot cocoa and cookies at Barney Volk’s house!! Those days were pure, and simple….and beautiful! Thank you for reminding so many of us of the joys of our youth! Merry Christmas, everyone!!
I have the same wonderful memories of shopping at Christmas time in McKeesport. Usually my sister Kathy and I would take the bus ( I think it was the 55C, not sure if the letter is correct). We’d catch it at the top of Mifflin St. and Crawford. We would spend all day in town until we were weighed down with packages. But the best stops were certainly at Murphys and Greens five and ten cent stores. I remember walking down the steps in anticipation of seeing Santa Claus, even though I was way too old to sit on his lapi still couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of him. A big treat for us was to go upstairs to the cafeteria in Murphy’s for a bite to eat. The memories are so vivid. It’s incredible reading that others did almost exactly what we did and enjoyed it as much. What I’d give to go back in time to revisit a day of shopping there, the way it used to be!
Jim What a great article, I know it brought back a lot of memories for all your readers. Wouldn’t it be neat to be Ebenezer Scrooge and have the ghost of Christmas past take us back for a quick visit to those wonderful times.
What is it about McKeesport and the surrounding towns that has all of us “especially u//s people who have moved away and haven’t been back for awhile ? It never leaves your Heart. I have seen things now that were only just a memory. It’s wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!
I REMEBER MY MUM TAKING US DAHNTOWN AND WE WOULD MEET MY DAD AT THE MILL FENCE TO GET HIS CHECK,AND MY SISTER AND I WOULD RUN TO HIM TO SEE WHO COULD GET TO HIM FIRST,THAN MY MUM WOULD CASH IT AT BALSAMO’S AND WE WOULD GET NEW SHOES FOR CHRISTMAS AT SAMUELS AND A NEW DRESS AT COX’S TO WERE TO THE CHRISTMAS SERVICE AT CHURCH..WHAT HAPPY MEMORIES THEY WHERE..
As a 16 year old, I didn’t know much about Duquesne until I met a guy from there and married him.
Your stories and comments sure bring back alot of memories. I remember all that stuff about McKeesport. I also remember Kresges 5 and 10 . My grandma was in charge of the stock room. I was just a little girl then, now I am a old lady with alot of memories.
Hi Jim, Beautiful stories they really bring back memories from when i was growing up & going with my Mom & Grandmother all the time to Mckeesport on the bus and spending the day over there and coming home late in the evening at dark time & all the friendly people and stores playing songs and sounding so much like Christmas wow keep up the good work it just isn’t the same anymore…. love your stories
My Dad was from Duquesne and my Mom from McKeesport. I grew up in Port Vue. I too think of home when I hear Siver Bells. MCKees port back in the days of the sixties was a winter wonderland of Christmas shopping for my mom, my sisters, and me. We would walk to McKeesport to save money on transportation (10 cents per person 20 cents for adults) so we would have money to buy red pistachios at Greens to munch while waiting for the bus to go home. Mom would give us the choice to ride downtown or to get pistachios. : ) I miss those simple times, and McKeesport.
I was never one for pistachios, but I loved to shell them for my aunt and cousins. It was a challange to keep up with the demands of three hungry pistachio lovers! – Jim
Silent Night and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
But Jim, a Holy Namer would never say ‘yunz’. Sr. Mary Daniel, Sr. Clementine, Mrs. Smith et.al. would have our heads if we did (let alone what my father would say)!
Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas!
I remember those 5 and dime stores in McKeesport. The warmth and the smells really reminded me of Christmas. And I was never fond of sitting on Santa’s lap. You and Stephen look so adorable in that photo!
I worked at H.L. Greens in 61 & 62. The Christmas season was wonderful. I helped decorate some of the windows. Loved working there. Had the best people I ever worked with. I would sure like to get in contact with some of the people I worked with. I really missed the cafeteria and the murals of McKeesport on the walls. What I miss most about the area is the street cars and the train coming through town by Balsamo’s
My mother was in the first mural on the wall near the entrance to Green’s. It was a picture of the Tin Plate Co. Also my sister Margie worked there – Margie Stuchell and she loved it too.Seems to me it was 61 or 62. She worked first floor in the back, socks I think.Also, I was sitting at the counters in the backet watching TV when the pirates won the pennant when Mazeroski hit the homerun in 1960.