116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The year 1934 was a sad time for many, if not most Americans, for it found them in severe financial straits. In those days husbands were supposed to be the wage earners while their wives stayed home to do the cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. However, the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression at that time and millions of men were either unemployed or stuck in a low-paying job that scarcely kept their families fed or clothed.
It was during this frightening year that my mother, Ella Mansfield and her friend Bertha Hanson, both in their late 30s, decided, after a couple weeks of thinking about it, to invest $2.50 apiece to rent a first floor room for a month in a building near the Czech bank on Third Street in what is now the New Bo district. Their idea was that perhaps they might earn some extra money selling used or outgrown clothing (which people would bring to the store) to customers who could purchase said items at a much cheaper price than if they were new. Ella and Bertha never meant for this enterprise to extend more than the one month.
I'm not certain, but probably Ella and Bertha placed an ad in The Gazette regarding the new shop because lots of people began bringing in used clothing as soon as the shop first opened its doors. At the same time prospective customers began swarming in to pick up bargains.
Long before the month was up, Ella and Bertha could see that their business venture had taken off like wildfire. (My mother told me years later that the business from its inception never lost money). Thus, before that month was up the two of them decided to rent an entire building at 1010 Third Street several blocks toward downtown in order to accommodate the growing business. (Ultimately the two ladies purchased the building). It was in that building that the White Elephant Shop was to remain until the terrible flood of 2008.
Shortly after the business was moved up the street, a local sign company was contacted to create a sign for the shop. To coincide with the name of the shop a metal white elephant was constructed to hang in front of the shop for all to see. As the business prospered and grew Ella and Bertha felt it necessary to hire additional help. Therefore, two women, Priscilla and Libby, were hired and were to remain with the shop at least until Ella and Bertha retired in 1963.
My mother would often regale us at dinner with some of the more interesting happenings of the day at the shop. There were many stories but the following are some of the best in my memory:
One day a man came into the shop asking to see some suits. He collected some and then repaired to a room in the back of the store for trying on clothes. A while later he appeared from the room telling Ella and Bertha that he had been unable to make a choice and that he had left the suits back in the room. However, both women observed that this man appeared to be much larger than when he went to the room. It seemed that he had put on all of the suits, one on top of the other, with the intent of strolling out the door with his booty. But he was caught; told to remove all the suits and then told never to return to the store.
I was at the shop one summer's day doing odd jobs there, when in blew a group of men and women with their children. The women wore bright colored ankle length dresses - the men in cheap tight fitting black suits.
No sooner had this ebullient throng entered the shop than their children (at a signal from the adults) commenced spreading throughout the shop creating a diversion by handling merchandise and running noisily around the premises. At that point the women began to scoop up merchandise, shoving the items up their skirts and fastening them to hooks placed underneath their skirts.
They did all this with great speed and then made their way to the front door but Ella and Bertha, having observed the nefarious operation, stopped them before they could leave and thus were able to retrieve all of the purloined items. Strangely enough this group returned the next summer and I was also there as before. But this time Ella and Bertha, plus the two hired ladies, were able to place themselves in such a way that the group of thieves were unable even to launch a successful assault as before. They were then told to leave and not to return again. Suffice it to say, they never did come back.
In Cedar Rapids in those days there lived a very wealthy lady who made frequent trips to Chicago to purchase very expensive clothing that local stores didn't carry. However, she only wore these items a few times and would then bring them to the White Elephant Shop. There was a woman who Ella and Bertha knew to be the exact size and shape of this wealthy lady, so whenever the wealthy lady brought in a box full of scarcely worn clothing the other lady would be informed of this. The lucky lady would then come to the shop and purchase the entire box of nearly new expensive clothing at a much reduced price, of course, than what the wealthy lady paid for them in Chicago. The wealthy lady never seemed to care how much she received from the shop. She was only interested in wearing the garments a few times and then getting rid of them.
The White Elephant Shop, during my mother's tenure, was located on the first floor only of the antiquated building at 1010 Third Street and that building has been in the local news lately. Some people wish to save it and move it to another location; others would like it demolished. Frankly I have no opinion one way or the other. Until I read the article in The Gazette about the building I had assumed that the building had been destroyed in the 2008 flood.
There was an apartment in back of the shop on the first floor rented by a family. Another apartment filled the entire second floor of the building. I only remember one tenant for that apartment. He gave his name as John Doe to Ella and Bertha. Mother always doubted that it was his true name, of course, but the man always paid his rent each month on time, was very quiet and never seemed to have any visitors. Other than when he came in to pay his rent, he never set foot inside the shop.
Mother always told me that she regretted having to work and be away from home for much of the time, but I told her many years after she had retired that she was just ahead of the times and besides, I was always very proud of her being able to start a business on a proverbial shoestring during a terrible time in this nation's history. For now, in this day and age, of course, most married women have jobs for one reason or another; but that wasn't the case in the 1930s.
My mother lived to be 101 years and 9 months. She passed away in 1999 in Grand Junction, Colo. I always told her how proud I was of her for starting such a successful business during the Great Depression. Without the White Elephant Shop our family would not have come through the depression days as well as it did.
' James Mansfield grew up in Cedar Rapids. He has a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Iowa, and is a retired editor and staff composer for a music publication company. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org