Auckland: Off to the shops

By Jenny Lynch

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

The Farmers Trading Company Auckland building in
Hobson St, 1936. File photo / NZ Herald
The Farmers Trading Company Auckland building in Hobson St, 1936. File photo / NZ Herald

The young woman takes a last look in the mirror. Hat perched at just the right angle, gloves in place, stocking seams straight. She smooths her skirt, picks up her handbag and trips out the door.

On her way to a spring race meeting at Ellerslie? Or perhaps a function at Government House?

No. She's off to town to check out fashions for the coming 1950/51 summer season and buy a pattern and fabrics for a new blouse.

In 1950, visiting town was, as it always had been, a dressup occasion. And, as always, shopping in town meant heading for the department stores.

There were five major stores to choose from. Queen St boasted three. Milne & Choyce (popularly known as Millins) and Smith & Caughey's were the upmarket glamour girls, the places you visited for top quality fashion and luxury items. Across the road, on the site now occupied by Whitcoulls, John Court's prided itself s a family store, much valued
by creative housewives for its range of knitting wools and craft materials.

A free bus service took shoppers up to Hobson St and the children's favourite, Farmers, where youngsters could charge about on pedal cars and scooters on the roof-top playground as their mothers watched from the sidelines - possibly contemplating future purchases. (Farmers' easy terms specials included ladies' bicycles at 5/- down and 3/9 weekly for 100 weeks.)

In Karangahape ("K") Rd, shoppers were looking for bargains and George Court's, which in the 1930s attracted huge custom with its Friday night two-hour fabric sales, was the principle focus.

Milne & Choyce claimed senior status among the Big Five, having morphed from the Misses Milne's small 1867 fashion shop in Wyndham St while Smith & Caughey's had its beginnings in Marianne Smith's 1880 drapery store on the corner of Queen and Airedale Streets.

The two Court's stores evolved - with many twists and turns and a brotherly parting of the ways - from the 1880s family owned Beehive drapery warehouse in Karangahape Rd.

Unlike his competitors with their drapery shop backgrounds, hardware salesman Robert Laidlaw would have had little experience with rust-free corsets (at 2/11d each) and knee-length woollen bloomers when in 1909
he founded the comprehensive catalogue mail order company that in 1920 became The Farmers - famous from 1934 for its grand Santa parades and for Hector the mascot parrot who arrived two years later. (Hector would remain on duty until his death in 1977.)

Other than during sales such as Hector's Birthday or Smith & Caughey's bi-annual fairs when there was apt to be an unseemly stampede, department store shopping in 1950 was a relatively sedate experience.

It followed a tried-and-true pattern. Shoppers expected full service. If it was gloves you were after, for instance, you sat on a bentwood
chair by the counter, with your hand on a cushion, while the assistant fetched an appropriate selection and helped you find the right style and fit.

Salespeople did not give change. Cashiers, reached by the pneumatic lamson tube system, attended to that detail. Docket and cash went into a metal capsule which then whizzed off to the cash desk. While you waited for the return capsule to deliver your threepence or sixpence the assistant would carefully place your purchase in a paper bag. (Bigger items would be wrapped in brown paper fastened with string
tied in a handy carrying loop.)

During the early years department stores had their own workrooms which, depending on the store, produced such diverse offerings as bespoke men's suits (from 95/- in the 1930s), epaulettes for servicemen's uniforms, jewellery and jockey's silks. Alice Carpenter, 97, remembers having a customised dressmakers' dummy made for her at George Court's during the 1940s.

"They wound this sticky tape around my body to make a mould. Then they cut it off me, joined it up again and sent it away to be varnished and placed on a stand."

The war put paid to some inhouse customer services, but in 1950 you could still get ladders in your precious silk or nylon stockings
repaired and your overlocking requirements attended to at John Court's.

Shopping could be a tiring and thirsty business. Before long it was time for refreshments. Tearooms, formal affairs by today's standards, were often located at the top of the building and accessed by cage-like elevators with white-gloved attendants identifying the contents of each floor en route ( going up - maids', misses' and ladies' clothing). John
Court's established a particularly fine reputation for its morning
teas and over the years "meet me at John Court's" became the store's advertising slogan.

Whatever venue you chose for the cup that cheers, it was likely to be accompanied by dainty sandwiches, scones and cakes arranged on silver tiered stands. (In the 1920s this cost the princely sum of 1/3d).

Some stores also produced light luncheons and those at Milne & Choyce became so popular that the tearooms entrance often had to be roped off, with an attendant letting customers in as space became available.

At Christmas time children assumed special importance. Even in darkest wartime, stores made a special effort to attract the youngsters, and their hopefully obliging parents, with enticing window displays, Santas, toys, pixie grottos (Farmers in the 1940s charged 6d entry fee) and magic caves.

For the best part of 50 years the central city's department stores ruled the retail roost, providing shoppers with household and personal needs that ranged from the glamorous (evening frocks and perfumes) to the utilitarian (sewing machines, beds, oil cans and tinned lobsters).

Some, like Farmers with its motto of "service, satisfaction, trust and goodwill" inspired not only loyalty but genuine affection.

In 1950 the future looked bright. And so it was ... for the following two decades. But by the 1970s the arrival of suburban malls and a proliferation of fashion boutiques would begin to alter shopping patterns and woo customers from the central city. Stores that had successfully weathered the Depression, wartime shortages and import
restrictions eventually succumbed to these new challenges.

Today only two of the Big Five survive. Smith & Caughey's stands firm on the site it has occupied for 126 years as a Queen Street centre of quality and elegance.

Farmers maintains a modest presence on the other side of the street - its main outlets are in the suburbs - but Alice Carpenter is possibly not alone in believing that with the closing in 1991 of Farmers' iconic Hobson St store the heart went out of Auckland.

Jenny Lynch is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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