Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wrapping Christmas gifts at Sears, Northern Lights

Finding a Christmas season job wasn't easy during my college years at the end of the 1960s, not because jobs were scarce, but because I wasn't able to come home to Ambridge until shortly before Christmas Day. Most businesses that hired for the season tended to want employees who could work from before Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve.

So, when Sears at Northern Lights called in December while I was still at school and asked my mom to check with me to see if I'd be interested in working between the day I got home from school through Christmas Eve as a gift-wrapper, I said, "Sure!" Sounded like something I might even enjoy doing. And if I didn't, at least I'd be making a little money.

Wrapping Christmas gifts at Sears, which I did two Decembers in a row, turned out to be one of my favorite jobs ever.

At the time, Northern Lights, which had opened in 1956, was a busy, thriving place, crowded with shoppers, and despite its huge parking lot, finding an empty space often wasn't easy. Sears, a newly built addition to the center at its far northwest corner, where Giant Eagle is now, was only a few years old, having opened in October 1963.

Sears, Northern Lights,
Beaver County Times,
October 22, 1963

This Sears was much bigger and, not surprisingly, more modern than the old Ambridge store at 653-655 Merchant Street which had closed the week before the Northern Lights store opened.

The Ambridge store had carried appliances, sporting goods, tires and car accessories, paints and building materials, and tools--oh, and toys in Toy Town at Christmastime. Everything else had to be ordered from the Sears catalog, then picked up at the store when delivered. But the Northern Lights store was a complete department store, carrying everything the Ambridge store had, plus clothing including furs*, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics and perfume, candy, white goods (linens, towels, drapes), housewares, and furniture. And there was a snack bar.

Christmas ad, kids' winter outerwear
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 16, 1969

During my wrapping stints, the Northern Lights Sears still had a new store feel, all bright and shiny, but even more so decorated for the holiday season. Lights twinkled, ornaments sparkled, tinsel glittered. The store was bustling with shoppers eager to buy and staffed with employees eager to help them do that.

Christmas ad: electric organs, record players, and radios
Sears, Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 2, 1969

The small gift wrapping counter was set off from the shopping areas, near the customer service and credit departments if I'm remembering correctly. Even so, the store's cheery Christmas spirit flowed into our little out-of-the-way nook.

Depending on how busy the store was expected to be, I usually worked with one or two affable and energetic young women. We got along great and laughed a lot together. At one point, a manager came to the wrapping counter to try to recruit one of us to demonstrate a new waist-slimming product--a platform that rotated back and forth as you did the twist on it. The not-perfect gift for someone you loved, but maybe a buyer would think ahead to her New Years resolution to get in shape. One of my colleagues was delighted to be asked to perform for customers for a bit, and quickly volunteered.

Christmas ad, TVs
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 9, 1969

Sears offered customers free gift boxes and wrapping. The wrapping wasn't anything fancy. Customers got a box lined with tissue paper, a choice of papers, some ribbon, and a bow. Even with my minimal gift wrapping experience I could handle that without training, which hadn't been offered anyway. Really, the hardest part often was nicely folding the clothes and Christmas towels and cloth napkins before arranging them in the box. Or removing stubborn price tags.

We wrapped bracelets, blankets, blenders, babies' toys, and bubble bath. We wrapped record players, eight-track players, hair dyers, and electric shavers. Luckily, the bulkier items already came in a box, and no one asked us to wrap a car battery or a bike.

Christmas ad, automotive center
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 9, 1969

The customers were uniformly pleasant, chatting about their Christmas plans and the people the gifts were for, while patiently waiting for us to finish the wrapping. Who knew that gift wrapping could be such a social activity?

Most shoppers just wanted boxes, said thanks, and hurried on their way. But some, mostly men, were grateful to avail themselves of the wrapping, especially as Christmas got nearer. I believe many men would have happily paid to have their gifts wrapped. Free wrapping made them even jollier. And their apparently having stopped at a bar on their way to the store made them jollier still.

Christmas ad, women's clothing
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 2, 1969

Often the men would ask our opinion about what they'd bought. Was the robe appropriate for a woman in her 60s? Was the scarf trendy enough to satisfy a teen? Their sister was about our size, did we think a "medium" sweater would fit? Did we like the smell of Yardley's English Lavender?

Christmas ad: women's robes and hose
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 16, 1969

Some of the men would look mildly embarassed, others unabashedly naughty, when we opened their bags to find sheer black negligees and lacy lingerie. Others, I think, just wanted to see how we'd react, if we'd say anything about the sexy gifts. But we were gift wrapping professionals, and we didn't bat an eye.

Our late Christmas Eve customers were mostly men, relieved to have found something acceptable to give their kids, wife, parent, or girlfriend. And, yes, even the remaining wrapping paper we had would be fine.

Christmas ad, last minute gifts
Sears Northern Lights
Beaver County Times
December 22, 1969

On Christmas Eve, I was wistful as I stamped my time-card and turned it in for the last time, then stepped out into the cold, crisp night air to walk to the car where my mother was waiting to pick me up. I was looking forward to joining my family for their traditional Wiligia dinner, followed by Midnight Mass at Divine Redeemer Church. But I'd miss the joyful holiday bustle and the happy people who let us wrap their gifts.

* Sears trivia: When the Northern Lights store opened in October 1963, the manager said that Sears sold more minks than any other store in the world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge: what's that building?

Over the past year, I've seen this postcard, or ones like it, being discussed on several Facebook pages. The postcard is of the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge* crossing the Ohio River, built in 1926-27. The small building to the left with the green roof has been of particular interest, but so far, no one has definitively identified it.

"Ambridge Aliquippa Bridge Across Ohio River, Aliquippa, PA"
circa 1930-1945

I don't have much information about the postcard. It appears to be a bordered linen-era postcard, a type of postcard published roughly between 1930-45.

The picture on the postcard appears to be a drawing, not a photo, so may not be entirely accurate. Despite the "Aliquippa" location in the card's printed caption, it shows the bridge from the Ambridge side of the Ohio. If nothing else, the postcard shows the bridge's walkway on the right, meaning the bridge is depicted from the east (Ambridge) side.

Here's a 1928 photo from Ambridge's Laughlin Memorial Library's archives of the bridge showing the same small building:

Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge
approaching from 11th Street, Ambridge
credit: William J. Bowan
photo courtesy of Laughlin Memorial Library archives

I didn't find any further information about the photo in the library. However, the same photo was published in the May 13, 1991, Beaver County Times with the following caption:
This photograph presents a view of the Aliquippa-Ambridge Bridge in 1928 from 11th Street in Ambridge. The new building on the right was being constructed at the time. In 1964-68, the building and confectionery store next door were both demolished to make way for Route 65 .
I remember the building to the right with the North Pole Ice Cream sign, but I don't remember the building on the left. Does anyone know what it is and when it was demolished?

Update November 26, 2016:

I finally have a more positive identification of the small building to the left of the bridge.

After I shared the original post on Facebook, several people offered opinions on what the building may have been. One person suggested a toll house, but the Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge was never a toll bridge. I believe my cousin Frank Mish said it was a water pump house. Most of the commenters said they thought the building was a railroad switch tower.

I thought the building was in an odd location for a switch tower given the rather limited view the building gave of the train tracks that ran under the bridge, but what did I know about switch towers? Nothing.

The postcard in this post does give the impression that the building might have been just the top of a tower that was separated from 11th St. But then I took a closer look at the photo below of the bridge taken from South Heights looking east across the Ohio River towards Ambridge. The small building in question is near the far right in this photo. And although it's hard to see in the photo, the small building is not part of a tower. It sits level with 11th St. on the hill above the train tracks. Were switch towers ever not towers I wondered.

Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge
October 21, 1927
courtesy: Dale Donna Zehnder

Here's an enlargement of that part of the photo:

Enlargement of area south of the bridge

And then, during a visit to Laughlin Memorial Library, I found the photo below showing the Ambridge end of the bridge nearing completion:

Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge nearing completion on Ambridge side
courtesy: Bowan archives, Laughlin Memorial Library

On the reverse of that photo, the late Bill Bowan, a local history expert, had written a description of the scene:

Reverse of photo of bridge immediately above

Bowan wrote:
Completing work on New Ambridge Aliquippa Pa Bridge - at 11th St. & Ohio View. Ambridge Water Pump House on Left. Later razed in 1964-65 to make right of way for New Route #65. 

Based on that, I have to conclude that the building to the left of the bridge entrance was a water pump house, not a railroad switch tower. At the time the bridge was built, Ambridge pumped its water from the Ohio River; the Service Creek Reservoir wasn't constructed until the 1950s.

* Originally known as the Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge; the town of Woodlawn eventually became part of Aliquippa.

Ambridge trivia: Did you know...? #6 Kennedy Drive

Kennedy Drive was called Latimer Avenue until December 9, 1963, when Ambridge Borough Council changed the street's name to honor President John F. Kennedy, assassinated less than three weeks earlier on November 22.

Kennedy had traveled via Latimer Avenue enroute to Pittsburgh from a political rally in Aliquippa on October 12, 1962.

According to the December 10, 1963 issue of the Beaver County Times, 41 residents of Latimer Avenue had petitioned to ask for the name change.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ambridge trivia: Did you know...? #5 11th St. oil well

A working oil well once stood on 11th Street between Duss Avenue and Beaver Road.

Oil Derrick
11th St. between Duss Ave. and Beaver Rd.
circa 1900s
Daily Citizen
July 12, 1955

Original caption says:
IN THE GOOD OLE DAYS--This oil derrick was on 11th St., near Duss Ave., and Beaver Rd., in the early 1900's. Are you old enough to recall the setting?
I knew there once were oil wells in the Legionville and Tevebaugh Hollow areas, and I also knew that the Harmonites invested in oil wells, but the wells I'd read about weren't in what's currently Ambridge Borough, but rather on farmland in Economy and New Sewickley Townships.

I hadn't read anything about oil wells on the hills of Ambridge until I stumbled across an article about Economy in of all places, a 1899 magazine for railway conductors* which described "green hills dotted with oil derricks" and mentioned "hillsides, now leased to an oil speculator whose derricks overlook the village."

The photo above is the first I've found clearly identified as being an oil well in Ambridge. I do not know the year the photo was taken.

* "Economy--A Communistic Scheme in Practice" by Isaac Barrow, The Railway Conductor, 1899, Vol. XVI, Published by the Order of Railway Conductors

Update December 4, 2014: Because I know I have readers not familiar with Ambridge streets, I'm adding this current Google satellite view of the area of 11th Street between Duss Avenue (on the left side) and Beaver Road (not Beaver Street as indicated by Google) on the right. That area may have been vacant enough for an oil well in the 1900s, but it's been densely residential for a long while. You can't tell from this view, but 11th Street from Lenz Avenue to Beaver Road is quite steep.

I don't know how the derrick in the photo could be "near" both Duss Avenue and Beaver Road as described in the original photo caption. Perhaps the person who gave that as the location wasn't familiar with Ambridge streets. Or we have different definitions of "near."

11th St. between Duss Ave. and Beaver Rd.
Google satellite view

Monday, December 1, 2014

Santa comes to Ambridge! 1959

"Santa Claus is coming to Ambridge"
Beaver Valley Times
November 24, 1959

You could sometimes visit "Santas" who, let's be frank, were really "Santa's helpers" in Ambridge stores like J.C. Penney, Sears, or G.C. Murphy, but the real Santa always came to Ambridge and set up his headquarters right on Merchant Street. He'd arrive in Ambridge right after Thanksgiving, sometimes during a parade with a number of marching units, sometimes with a more modest escort as he did in 1959 when he was accompanied by the Ambridge High School band.

The Ambridge Chamber of Commerce would get very excited about Santa's stay in Ambridge. Although I have no idea why the Chamber's 1959 ad had quotation marks around "Santa" when they knew he was the real Santa.

"'Santa' Is Planning to Visit Ambridge"
Ambridge Chamber of Commerce ad
Beaver Valley Times
November 16, 1959

Some years Santa rode in on a firetruck due to "lack of snow" preventing him from riding in on his sleigh. If there had been snow...I guess the reason for the firetruck might have been "we had to clear the snow on Merchant Street for the marchers, so no sleigh." In some other years, Santa would ride on a parade float.

In 1959, Santa rode in on the truck pulling his official Santa Headquarters, a trailer donated by Twin Trailer Sales, at that time on the corner of Eighth Street and Latimer Avenue (later renamed Kennedy Drive.) In the photo of his arrival below, Santa is in front of Penn Sweet Shoppe, 501 Merchant Street. I believe the store to its right was Mark's Shoe Store at 503 Merchant.

"Santa's Here"
Beaver Valley Times
November 28, 1959

Original caption of above photo:
SANTA'S HERE - Old St. Nick came to Ambridge Friday afternoon, greeting the populace from atop a trailer which he used instead of his sleigh in the absence of snow. The jolly old fellow will talk to kiddies today from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. in his trailer parked in front of the Timney Store on Merchant Street. He also will be there throughout the holiday season.

"'santa' makes his headquarters in AMBRIDGE!"
Beaver Valley Times
November 26, 1959

Look at all the Ambridge businesses sponsoring Santa's stay that are listed in the ad, just some of the many stores that lined Merchant Street in 1959. For the addresses of these stores, check out the Ambridge List of Lists page.

Here's some of the text in the ad (quirky capitalization included):
DON'T MISS SANTA'S ARRIVAL! Santa Claus will arrive in his sparkling trailer on Friday, November 27th in Ambridge, escorted by the Ambridge High School band! Santa will make his headquarters in his trailer on Merchant St. in Ambridge for the Christmas Shopping Season--Don't Miss him!
Even though Northern Lights Shopping Center had opened in November, 1956, Ambridge stores were still very busy in 1959, so busy that finding a parking space on Merchant and adjacent streets was difficult and sidewalks were crowded with shoppers.