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Over a century ago, one of the most important merchants in any neighborhood was the one offering 'dry goods'

COURTESY OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - If youve spent hours sitting in commuter traffic on Powell Boulevard, heres an unfamiliar scene! This is a late 1920s photo of Klappers Dry Goods, built in 1912 on the southwest corner of Powell and S.E. Milwaukie Avenue in Brooklyn - where Classic Pianos is today. Brooklyn residents enjoyed having such a store close to home, until 1934 - when it was sold, and became a U.S. Bank branch. It seems that Sellwood and Westmoreland held a public dance almost every weekend in the early 20th Century! THE BEE would announce, "Everyone come, for a good time" – at either the Masons, the Odd Fellows Lodge, or the Westmoreland Ladies Auxiliary Club – where an orchestra and band would be present helping everyone to socialize and dance the night away. Rummaging through files of early copies of THE BEE – this newspaper began in 1906, just a year after the opening Oaks Amusement Park – has given me a new grasp of how people in the Sellwood area lived, and shopped, over a century ago. This month, come with me – as I share with you some of what I have found!

For one thing, the ladies of St. Agatha's Parish always seemed to be in a party mood, cordially inviting everyone for a card social and dance at Union Hall. Strahlmans Hall at 13th and Spokane Street also offered gala events – monthly dances, or Holiday celebrations, where young people could meet new friends, and girls could sneak a peek at the groups of shy boys who showed up. Social activities certainly were important in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century.

Adults who couldn't, or didn't want to, dance came specifically to attend the card games set up on folding tables, usually in a separate room in the rear, or near the bar. Music, the stomping of feet on the hardwood floor, and the laughter from exuberant youngsters in the dance hall, added a gaiety to the evening events.

And these events were a great way to raise money for churches and local fire departments and other charitable enterprises, while being a safe place for young people to mingle or to catch up on news in the neighborhood.

But when a teenage girl was invited to a dance for the first time, what was she going to wear? She needed a new dress for the special event. Tailor and seamstress shops were to be found along 13th Avenue or on Milwaukie Avenue, but to order a handmade dress at places like those was expensive. Only parents with deep pockets, or overly understanding fathers, could manage such luxuries for her.

Also expensive were what was for sale at ladies' specialty stores – like millineries – which were often found along the streets of Portland at the time. So, for families living from paycheck to paycheck, most girls preparing for a first date would have to rely on mom to sew a dress – or, if she was a smart mom, she might already have taught her daughter how to use that sewing machine that sat in the parlor, and she could make it herself! But, if she were making her clothes at home, where would she get the material to make those special dresses? Fabric stores were a still a thing of the future. The answer: It would require a trip down to the local dry goods store.

Dry goods stores, a century ago, specialized in textiles and clothing materials – so they were where she would shop for any home sewing project. Girls looking for something special could spend hours there looking at frilly prints and fabrics, and debating amongst the many colors of fabrics and soft materials.

While the young ladies were busy with all that, the men – of various ages – were also busy. Between Umatilla and Tenino on Sellwood's 13th Avenue, businesses were drawing men on Friday afternoons anytime in the early 1900s. Since of course a gentlemen would want to look his best for the weekend, a haircut, shave, and a splash of rose water was in order at Roberts and Larsen's Barber Shop. Then it was off to the Senders Clothing Store, right next door to the barbershop, to pick out matching suit jacket and slacks. If you couldn't find the right style of jacket, or if the price for a pair of dress pants was too expensive at Senders, a stop at H.W Morgan's Dry Goods, north of Tenino Street, was needed before the evening came to an end.

Just across the street, in the Zirngiebel Building (later the home of the Black Cat Tavern, before that building was recently replaced with an apartment house), was the Berlin Davis Shoe Shop. Young men could try on a pair of dance shoes, or pick up some shoe polish for the fancy Florsheim Shoes they may already have owned.

Getting back to the ladies: If a desirable dress were to be ordered, rather than made, it needed to be ordered weeks in advance of the big dance night. The material could be ordered from the Elite Dressing Parlors, also situated in the Zirngiebel building; but, by 1912, the Elite Parlors had moved to an upstairs room above Woolworth's Confectionary (which is where "American at Heart" is now located).

Meantime, Mrs. Robbie – who advertised Ladies' tailoring and dressmaking, along with children's dresses and fancy needlework, from her residence at 7th and S.E. Clatsop – received many calls from girls desperate to have a skirt or dress made to order for an upcoming Sellwood shindig. And milliners and seamstresses, like Mrs. Lile and Mrs. Marshall, also worked from home, and were much sought after for their expertise to advise on the latest in ladies' fashions for upper middle-class clientele of Sellwood and Westmoreland.

Once the dress was ordered, it was time to find a hat and gloves at the local millinery. Florence Harmony's Hat Shop, and the Sellwood Millinery, were both within walking distance on 13th Avenue. Shoes and ready-made dresses could also be found at these shops, if the ladies didn't care for the selection at Berlin's or the Elite Parlors.

Mrs. M.E. Crane, proprietor of the Crane Millinery on Umatilla Street, presented a "Fine selection of Pattern Hats from the latest Parisian styles" – or at least, so said THE BEE in 1910.

Fashions and clothing designs in those days often revolved around Paris, and women as well as men worldwide were clamoring to buy everything that came out of France. Big department stores like Meier and Frank, The Lipman, and Wolfe and Co., in downtown Portland, made sure their ladies' clothing and accessories departments were well-stocked with the latest from Paris and New York.

Small millinery stores around the neighborhood streets on the east and west sides of Portland also tried to keep pace with the big stores' latest fashions, offering a few of their own Paris designs which they'd kept on hand for preferred customers. But these small stores couldn't show as many choices to their patrons as larger merchants, because of the cost to stock the merchandise. American dressmakers did make regular trips to Paris or the East Coast – at least twice a year – to keep up on the latest fashions.

To attract elite clientele into their fashion shops, some of the business owners even affected to be addressed as "Madame". In 1913, Miss Faith Henderson ran the Bonnette Shop, as it was called back then – but, by 1916, a BEE ad shows the business name had changed to "Bonnette Millinery, serviced by Mesdames McMurtrie and Helms, providing some of Paris' finest fashions".

Merchants in Inner Southeast found that that an advertisement in the local newspaper  enhanced their chances of attracting customers. This 1911 Senders and Company ad in THE BEE also stands out, having been designed by an on-staff cartoonist at the newspaper.As we continue our trip through advertisements and news in THE BEE over a century ago, se see that there was always an assortment of ready-to-wear lines at Brill's and H.W. Morgan's stores, but most hats were custom-made at the specialized shops along 13th Avenue. Christmas, New Year's, and Easter Sunday were always a special occasion, and dry goods stores and haberdashers were kept busy. Women looked for the exact complementary ensemble for their special outfit on such holidays.

Ladies were also influenced by the many fashion-oriented magazines they could subscribe to. For what amounted to 10 cents a copy they could subscribe to The Ladies Home Journal, McCall's magazine, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, or even Photoplay – each delivered to her doorstep – featuring the latest autumn, summer, spring, and summer fashions they'd soon see in the stores.

The Dress Form Shop on 16th Avenue in Sellwood placed the following advertisement in THE BEE for ladies who were serious about their wardrobe collection: "Did you ever stop to think how convenient and economical it is to have a perfect form of yourself, to fit your dresses over?" Of course they were ready to provide such a form.

While there were many dressmakers in Inner Southeast a century ago, hat designers and tailors were less common in Inner Southeast. Fortunately, Portland's downtown department stores offered tailor-made items not found anywhere else.

The most successful dry goods store on the east side of the Willamette River was run by Mier Klapper, who had arrived in Portland from Aberdeen, Washington, at the turn of the 20th Century. He was drawn to downtown, but his story also involves the Brooklyn neighborhood in Southeast.

The "Oregon Journal" daily newspaper reported on Mier's arrival in town. His first Dry Goods Store had been in Grays Harbor, Washington, not far from Aberdeen. Surprisingly, for such a small town, Grays Harbor apparently had a variety of men's clothing stores on one side of its main street, and women's garment merchants on the other side. Mier Klapper was so confident in his abilities, that he and his wife Laura moved to Portland in 1900. He partnered with L.E. Karo, and together they started the Karo-Klappers Dry Goods store at S.W. 3rd and Yamhill downtown, competing against the big department stores in Portland's commercial district.

From their later ads in "The Oregonian", the Karo-Klapper building must have been huge, since they were in regular need of experienced workers to manage their dress goods, domestics, men's furnishings, and shoe departments – and even sought a "window dresser" (a person skilled in arranging displays of goods in shop windows). Karo and Klappers sold everything from Voile skirts, to long and short kimonos, fur goods, muslin underwear, and petticoats, as well as Oxford shoes for men, women, and children. Flannels, calicoes and broadcloths could be purchased by the yard for those who preferred to make their own clothes at home.

When Mier finally closed his Ladies' and Men's fine clothing store in 1911 (which, by then, had been renamed the "New Golden Eagle"), it was the opinion of the locals that he would retire and settle down to "the good life" in the Brooklyn neighborhood, at his house on 10th at S.E. Beacon Street (today's Franklin Street). How wrong they were!

COURTESY DANA BECK COLLECTION - In the early 1900s, magazines like Womens Wear, Harpers Bazaar, and Vogue were popular with ladies who kept up on the latest fashions. The Ladies Home Journal reached a million subscribers by 1898; McCalls was originally published as a dressmaking pattern magazine! Here are some examples of womens hats that could be bought or ordered at the Southeast Portland Millinery Shops of the time.Customers in Sellwood, Brooklyn, Woodstock, and Westmoreland at that time still had to travel by streetcar to visit the huge stores downtown that carried the latest in men's and women's clothing. Almost every commercial district in the outskirts did contain a dry goods store or a ladies millinery shop, but they were on a small scale, with much fewer items than could be found at one of the big department stores in downtown Portland.

Mier himself had opened a quaint dry goods store at the corner of Milwaukie and Beacon Street, near his home, in the early 1900s – run by the Klapper household, while he himself had been busy with his larger New Golden Eagle store. Now having departed his downtown store, he saw the frustration on the faces of Brooklyn residents because there wasn't a single really large dry goods store on the east side of the river. At some point, Mier decided to build a large store in Brooklyn equivalent to those across the river.

It wasn't long before a two-story brick building arose on the southwest corner of Milwaukie and Powell Boulevard. Architect W.J. Kratz was hired to complete the structure of Klapper's Dry Goods; and, in April of 1912, it opened to the public close to the Brooklyn streetcar line.

It has to be noted that Mier's wife, Laura Klapper, was very instrumental in the family's fortune. She negotiated a ten-year lease for the Brooklyn Post Office Station D in the Klapper building, was president of the Brooklyn Community Club, and was a founding member of Portland's B'nai B'rith Club. The B'nai B'rith was a Jewish women's group which provided financial support to orphanages, and homes for the elderly, among many other social services.

The new Klapper's Dry Goods was the hit of Inner Southeast, offering all sizes of men's vests, suits, trousers, boots, and Oxford shoes, and "Big Yank" athletic underwear. It was a major shop for mothers looking for undergarments, children's school clothes, linens, kitchen toweling, and most household clothing needs. They even specialized in boys' baseball uniforms, during the era when major league baseball and local leagues were extremely popular.

Klapper's Dry Goods lasted well into the mid-1930s, until U.S. Bank took possession of the building and added marble-style tile over the original red brick façade. (In 2001 the former Dry Goods Store and Bank building was purchased by Maurice Unis, and his son Brian, who then established Classic Pianos on that corner. Together they renovated the structure into a beautiful showroom for pianos, and for presenting small musical revues and recitals.)

Moving ahead a decade, in our tour through old copies of THE BEE, we find that as more middle-aged women entered the work force, their independence and ability to earn money and make their own decisions drastically changed the world of fashion in the 1920's. Corsets were discarded in favor of tubular dresses that featured a dropped waist. Garments like harem pants, trousers for women, and knits were the styles that women then wanted to wear. Men in the 1920s wore pin-striped suits, silk shirts with matching handkerchiefs, with fedoras on their heads – and, on their feet, patent leather shoes. By 1924, men's Pendleton Wool Plaid shirts were introduced to the public, leading to a full line of men's sportswear from the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Southeast Portland.

With the "Roaring Twenties" in full swing, new styles and fancy modern men's and women's clothing stores appeared, attracting young people to spend what money they had. Bishops Brothers at 13th and S.E. Spokane offered athletic outerwear for those who golfed, played tennis, or needed hiking gear for a day on the trails. Girls and their mothers were relieved when a dressmaking shop opened in Westmoreland: The Fashionette Dress Shop, at 16th and S.E. Bybee.

Roy T. Bishop, who helped in the creation of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, then established his own company, Oregon Worsted, and began specializing in supplying a variety of fabrics, yarns, fancy laces, and patterns to creative homemakers who liked to sew. (There is a direct connection with today's Mill Ends Store.) Dry goods merchants in Sellwood couldn't keep up with the mass produced fabrics now available at the Oregon Worsted store on McLoughlin Boulevard; dry goods stores began disappearing, and few could be found in the neighborhood anymore.

The Depression in the 1930s proved to be the last straw for millineries and the previous dry goods stores. Ready-made clothes became the standard – and parents with large families could now afford to buy clothes off the rack. Mothers didn't have to spend endless hours at the pedal-driven mechanical sewing machine. J.C. Brill's and Rust's Haberdashery could offer jewelry, perfumes, hats, belts, dresses, slacks, and shoes, all at bargain prices.

Brill's Dry Goods Company served several generations in its lifetime in Sellwood. Brill's, established in 1915, was operated by Jasper and Bessie Brill on 13th Avenue; their last location was in the second location of the Sellwood Bank, now the location of an On Point Credit Union branch, at 13th and Tacoma. It lasted for 45 years – a testament to its loyal customers and employees. Earl Cowes was the fashion retail buyer for Brill's for over 30 years, and his assistant Florence Milne accompanied him for nearly 18 years. Brill's closed in the mid 1950's, marking the end of an era.

In today's modern world you can order men's fine clothes or ladies elegant dresses on the Internet without ever having to leave your home. But one sort of dry goods store seems to be returning; at the "Sellwood Union" on S.E. 13th Avenue – one of many such vintage clothing stores popping up around Southeast – they sell used and consignment women's and men's clothing.

It's really interesting to me, in following the trends of the last hundred-plus years in Inner Southeast Portland through the pages of THE BEE, to see how much some of Portland's clothing stores of today look so much like those vintage Dry Goods establishments, back at the start of the 20th Century.


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