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Reliving The Heydays Of Famous-Barr

'Famous-Barr: St. Louis Shopping at its Finest' by Edna Campos Gravenhorst

For almost 100 years, Famous-Barr was a St. Louis shopping destination. Its holiday window displays in particular drew shoppers from throughout the St. Louis area to Famous-Barr’s downtown location. Many of those displays, and other well-known Famous-Barr events, were directed by Helen Weiss, the store’s public relations maven.

“I started out writing a book about a company,” author Edna Campos Gravenhorst told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. That changed, though, as she started combing through dozens of boxes of archives collected by the Missouri History Museum. “I went with the idea that I was going to write the history of the company. The best surprise was about the people — customers and also the employees."

“To see Helen’s write-ins, her memos, her notes on the great events that she had planned, then that’s when I decided I’ve got to dedicate the book to Helen because Helen spent over 40 years at Famous-Barr. She was part of half of the history of Famous-Barr.”  

Helen Weiss’ son, Richard “Dick” Weiss, wrote the forward in Gravenhorst’s book about the department store. He said he remembered going to the Clayton store, just a few blocks from his house, with his mother after dinner.

“I would amuse myself by going up to the costume room and peeking into the dressing rooms,” Dick Weiss said. “When she found out about that … she took me to the book department and told me I could have any book that I wanted as long as I would just stay put. I satisfied myself with the mysteries at first, but then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll fix her wagon,’ and I got a big coffee table book, which at these prices would have been about $300. She came and she looked at me and she just didn’t even blink. She said, ‘Well, as long as you read it cover-to-cover, you can have it.’”

Dick Weiss went on to be a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and is now a writing coach.

“She was one of the first women executives,” Dick Weiss said of his mother. “Not well paid. One time her boss gave her her salary in a candy box. I think there were quarters — it might have been silver dollars — stacked up. That’s how little she was paid. Actually, the chocolates probably would have been worth more.”

Helen Weiss was known for creating and executing special events. One of her first was a fireworks display at the riverfront for a Fourth of July celebration — a precursor to today’s Fair St. Louis.

Famous-Barr was formed through a merger of the William Barr Dry Goods Co. and the Famous Clothing Store in 1911. Its iconic downtown St. Louis location opened in 1914 at the Railway Exchange Building. As far back as 1913, the store was a fashion trendsetter, Gravenhorst said. Those well-known holiday window displays also started in the early 1900s.

“Every year they kept adding to it and adding to it,” Gravenhorst said. “I would say probably the biggest windows with the most people coming by to see them would have been in the 1960s. They had a full staff of carpenters to come up with the decorations. One year they even had three live bears in the windows.”

“Managing all of that was incredible,” Dick Weiss said of his mother’s work. “She’d come home with the greatest stories.”

For the May Co., which owned Famous-Barr, the point, of course, was to get people into the store to buy things, and company officials backed Helen Weiss’ wild plans, Gravenhorst said.

“That’s where I would say Helen was a genius. She was an artist. She knew how to get people in the store,” Gravenhorst said. “Of course she wanted people to spend their money there — I mean, that was the whole idea of these extravagant events. But the thing was that she wanted people to have a good buying experience. It wasn’t just spending money. It was creating memories.”

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“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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