My late mother-in-law Dorothy was a child of the Depression. She’d grown up in a Pennsylvania steel town, married young and never worked outside the home or even learned to drive. Dot was widowed young too, left to raise five children on her own — the oldest being my husband, who was 15 when his father died, and the youngest his seven-year-old baby sister.

To say that she was a woman of tremendous spirit, and unstinting faith, is an understatement. Despite the fact that she didn’t drive, I can’t remember a Sunday she didn’t manage to somehow make it to Mass. There was no football or baseball game missed, no swim meet skipped if her children were involved. She was a band booster, a PTA stalwart, a constant presence in the football concession stand. I used to tease her relentlessly about being a “career athletic supporter.”

She perfected the art of making do and positive thinking. An expert seamstress, she took in sewing to help make ends meet, and baked thousands of cookies and sweets at Christmas to give as gifts. God love her, she could squeeze a penny ’til it squeaked. Dot was a coupon-clipper extraordinaire. You could always tell if she’d been in your house, because the cans had all been stripped of their labels for couponing purposes. And woe be to you if you threw away an empty cookie tin or a used butter wrapper — “Honey, save that!” was her cry, as she rifled through your kitchen trashcan.

At Christmas, she was in her element. She’d saved up all her Crisco and Dixie Crystals coupons, had stashed away bags of chocolate chips bought on special at Publix (her happy place), and in the garage, she had a mountain of Tupperware tubs and holiday tins bought at yard-sales for pennies and nickels, for just such re-gifting purposes. Her oven was ancient and unpredictable, with a door that routinely fell off, but still, Dot managed to turn out her masterpiece cookie trays. Nut roll, a sweet yeast bread with ground pecan filling was her specialty, but then there were also the peanut blossoms, date pinwheels, meringues, wedding cookies, congo bars, bird’s nests, jelly-filled thumbprints, and her trademark confection — the lady locks — a flaky puff pastry creation baked around a wooden rod and piped with a cream filling.

When it came to gifting, she was just as thrifty. Every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, her sons would be directed to put up a ladder to gain access to the “attic” crawl space. Down would come the cartons of ornaments, and more importantly, the boxes of boxes. Of course, Dot saved wrapping paper and ribbon and tissue year-round, but the boxes were her triumph. A gift box at Dot’s house had the half-life of plutonium, which meant that every year you could count on taking a sentimental stroll down retail lane.

Come Christmas morning, you’d open your gift from Dot and stare down at a gift box from Kaufmann’s, the “big store” in downtown Pittsburgh, where she hadn’t lived since 1965. Of course, it was unlikely the gift had actually been purchased from Kaufmann’s. More likely it was something she’d picked up on clearance months earlier at the Beall’s Outlet, or another discount store that didn’t have anything as fancy as gift boxes. Or maybe you’d find something encased in crinkled tissue from Webb’s City, a St. Petersburg landmark shuttered in the 1970s. If the gift was a nightie or slip, it likely came in a pink and white striped Belk-Lindsey box — another long-closed retail fixture in our hometown. After my freshman year of college, when I worked as parttime Christmas help at Thalhimer’s in downtown Richmond, there were recycled Thalhimer’s boxes for several years. Better than a Kaufmann’s or Webb’s City box, though, were the stacks of turquoise and white Maas Bros. Department Store boxes with the stylized palm tree emblem that she’d squirrelled away after our wedding in 1976. She especially adored the hard-sided gold foil boxes our wedding china and crystal had been sent in — not to mention the now-yellowed bubble wrap that had swaddled said crystal.

After my husband and I moved to Savannah, and then Atlanta, boxes from the old Levy’s Department Store on Broughton Street in downtown Savannah and then the iconic Rich’s in downtown Atlanta took their place in Dot’s box of boxes. Every Christmas morning, after the presents were opened, the gift boxes were collected, collapsed and carefully stored in a cardboard carton that went back up to the attic. A heart attack felled Dot in the summer of 1999. It took months to sort through the house she’d lived in for more than thirty years. She’d packed every closet, cabinet and cupboard with the fruits of decades of yard-saling. At the estate sale, we resorted to throwing in a free piece of Tupperware with every item we sold. Ten years later we all still have pieces of Dot’s Tupperware. And at Christmas-time, at our house, somehow, when the cartons of ornaments and decorations come up from the basement, so does the box of gift boxes.

My practical husband thinks it’s ridiculous to save the boxes. Why not pop a gift into one of those handy gift bags, or just wrap it in tissue and slap a bow on it? But I’m sentimental. The downtown Maas Bros., where I attended charm school as a teenager and worked as a sales clerk, buying my wedding dress on layaway with my employee discount, met the fate of so many other “big stores” across the country in the ’70s. First it was closed, then its identity was subsumed by another retail giant, and then, the final insult, it was bulldozed. Gone too are Kaufmann’s, where Dot shopped on her infrequent trips home to Pittsburgh. It’s called Macy’s now. The old Levy’s store in downtown Savannah is a college library now, and that dear old downtown Rich’s, where I spent many a lunch hour when I worked at the newspaper, was closed and partly torn down.

These days, I rarely shop at Macy’s, the entity that also swallowed Rich’s. It’s infantile, but like a lot of other people in Atlanta, I’m still pissed at Macy’s for doing away with the Rich’s name. (I’m pretty sure Chicagoans are also still holding a grudge against Macy’s for doing away with Marshall-Fields.) I like Talbot’s, and their pretty and substantial red gift boxes. And I admit to shopping at Marshall’s and TJMaxx, lured by the promise of low prices. But the discount stores are charmless, and they don’t give you gift boxes, not that I’d want to flaunt that TJ logo anyway. So out come the old Rich’s boxes, augmented by the occasional Orvis or the rare Bloomingdale boxes. The recipients know, and I know they know, their gift probably didn’t come from Bloomies. Or maybe it did. I’ll never tell! And I also know that sometime Christmas morning, when he thinks I’m not looking, my husband will try to slide the used gift boxes into the fireplace along with the wrapping paper. And I know I’ll find myself stopping him, hear myself crying, “Honey, save that!”

Photos from top:

Maas Bros. Department Store in downtown St. Petersburg

Kaufmann’s in downtown Pittsburgh

Rich’s in downtown Atlanta

This story also appears on Mary Kay Andrews’ blog:

© 2009, Mary Kay Andrews. All rights reserved.

Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews is the pseudonym of former Atlanta Journal and Constitution reporter Kathy Hogan Trocheck. Since leaving the Journal-Constitution in 1991, she has found gainful employment by authoring 17 novels, including the Callahan Garrity mysteries written under her own name, and seven novels as Mary Kay Andrews, including The New York Times best-selling HISSY FIT, SAVANNAH BREEZE, BLUE CHRISTMAS and DEEP DISH, all published by HarperCollins. A native Floridian, she is a diplomate of the Maas Brothers Department Store School of Charm and The University of Georgia.

  1. I’ve got a similar stash of boxes — including some gift boxes from Rich’s, beautiful gold and silver ones from Nordstrom’s, a Tiffany or two, quite a few Woolworth/Target/Wal-Mart specials, and this year I’m adding five new ones from Talbot’s. Just keep buying tissue paper.

  2. I love your story about old retail boxes. I worked at Maas in Ft. Myers for years, and was the dept. manager of China/Silver/Gifts, plus Trim-a-Home at Christmas. Our storage place here in Blairsville is loaded with old Maas Bros. boxes, and I just pulled them out to wrap gifts. I hate that Federated Stores bought out Allied. Shortly after that I left Maas, since things weren’t the same. I’m with you about shopping at Macy’s. I’ve found many other stores that are just as good, and probably cheaper. Merry Christmas to you! I hope to get your new book under the Christmas tree.

    Sandy McSpadden.

  3. P.S. I did my management training at Mass Bros. in St. Pete. I don’t know when you left there, but I might have seen you then. And Happy New Year to you!

  4. Martha W. Fagan

    Really enjoyed this story! We have boxes of boxes in our attic too….but we don’t have any Inherited ones! Your article also took me back to my part-time retail experiences. My first retail job was at a brand new Sears in Mobile. Women were required to wear black dresses and after working my way through linens, candy, and small electrics I ended up working part time in Men’s Furnishings (ties, underwear, etc.) for the rest of college in Mobile. When I moved to Atlanta I had part time jobs at Christmastime to make extra money — perfume counter at Rich’s mostly but my last Christmas job was in the Rich’s Fur Salon in downtown Rich’s …. what a dream job….all I had to do was count the coats when we brought them out of the vault or put them up and occassionally model one for someone who was shopping….needless to say the full time sales staff weren’t about to let me make a sale. I miss that old Richs!!!

  5. Love the way you capture the thrifty spirit of those touched by the depression. It’s alive and well in my family, though with less vigor in each generation.

  6. Wow, what a great story. Talk about a trip down memory lane. I’m all out of boxes now, but in the past I’ve saved boxes from Burdine’s (South Florida), Maas Bros., Davison’s (Atlanta), Rich’s (ditto and grrrrrr to Macy’s), Pomeroy’s and the Boston Store (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.), Hutzler’s (Baltimore), and Belk-Matthews (Macon, Ga.)
    I wasn’t smart enough to get my boxes back after the gift was opened. Guess I thought Rich’s would always be there.

  7. I also am a retail mgr vet and buyer vet too…from many now defunked wonderful department stores… I was born and raised in the Washington DC and Northern Va Area. Lord & Taylor,Woodards.we called it Woodies, Garfickles, So many great ones, Jordan Marsh, and all the ones you named. We moved to Florida and I worked for J.B. Ivey’s, Jordan Marsh, Maas Brothers, and I loved Jacobsons too.. All are gone now and so are the cute little eating places after a long day of shopping to get a bite to eat and have some soup and some finger sandwiches. You always knew what kind of gift you were getting from the box …. thanks for a trip down a great memory lane…

  8. My Mom always recycled store boxes as well as gift bags, too. There were some that went back and forth between us countless times over the years. We still do it, too.

    As for Macy’s, they’re dead to me. I finally got fed up with their shoddy customer service and lousy selection and we have officially sworn off them.

  9. We keep the same gift bags every year and trade them around. We have even started re-using the name-tags.

  10. Jeff Cochran

    I miss the Rich’s coconut cake.

  11. Don O'Briant

    I loved this. My mother saved every gift box. And waxed paper. I don’t think I ever got a sandwich for lunch that wasn’t wrapped in wrinkled waxed paper.

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