Historical society looks back at heyday of iconic local store
By Tom Phelan - Staff Writer
Enfield - posted Wed., Mar. 2, 2011
One of Enfield’s own spoke to the Enfield Historical Society at its meeting on Feb. 28, mixing history with nostalgia in a presentation called “Hula Hoops to High Fashion – G. Fox & Co. in the 1950s.”
Elizabeth Abbe first shared a few moments of history of the Abbe family of Enfield, before turning to the evening’s main topic. Almost from the first slide, the audience became interactive.
Two ladies brought hats in their original hatboxes from the G. Fox store. One was a red feather hat, which its owner said she still made use of as a member of the Red Hat Society. Betty Steele brought a small keepsake dish, also in its G. Fox packaging. “People really relate to G. Fox in so many heartwarming ways,” Abbe said.
To orient her audience in time, Abbe cited several milestone events from the period. Color television was introduced in the 1950s, with favorite shows such “The Honeymooners,” “Father Knows Best” and “I love Lucy.” Walt Disney opened Disneyland, in California. The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Elvis Presley appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Broadway hits included “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story” and “Damn Yankees.” And Dr. Seuss published “The Cat in the Hat.”
Abbe reminded the audience about the economy of the times, touching on the prices of cars and houses, but one set of dollar figures brought the group to laughter: A Harvard student’s tuition was $1,250, but a microwave oven cost $1,300.
Abbe said that what was called a “fancy goods store” was established in 1847 on Hartford’s Main Street. Most of what was sold there came in by boat on the Connecticut River. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1917. The public rallied support for the rebuilding of G. Fox, and the store paid all its employees during the entire time it took to rebuild.
All the store’s financial records were also destroyed, but Abbe said the store’s owners estimated that 99 percent of people who owed money to the store paid their bills. “They wanted that store to survive,” she commented.
The new building was the 11-story structure that most Connecticut residents identify with. “By the 1950s,” Abbe said, “G. Fox was the largest privately-owned department store in America.”
Abbe took members of the audience on a guided mental tour of the store, beginning on the first floor. “Let’s go in,” she began. “Cosmetics, accessories and jewelry were all sold on the first floor.” Chanel No. 5 perfume cost $35, according to the price list she showed. “Alligator brief case and an evening bag,” she continued, as she showed pictures. “We’re still on the first floor… Cuff links and a tie tack.” The store also had an optometrist, as well as a pharmacy. Abbe surprised the small audience of local history buffs when she told them that G. Fox also sold liquor, and even had its own private label.
She moved from one floor to the next, covering a wide variety of the store’s product offerings. “They always had something for everyone,” she said. “And it was the best of quality.”
Documentation, photos and illustrations for the presentation came from the Connecticut Historical Society’s displays and archives. Abbe is the society’s director of public outreach.
The interactive presentation not only served to revive memories of the G. Fox store as it was in the minds of the audience, but it also documented the marked the evolution of Connecticut lifestyle and values over the past 60 years.