February 10, 2021

Harriett and friend at Miller’s back door

WORKING WOMEN IN ATHENS, 1920s

As a young widow with a son, Harriett needed to supplement the household income.  She landed a job as a clerk at Miller’s Department Store on the square in downtown Athens. She mostly worked in “piece goods,” which was an ideal department for her.  She loved handling the bolts of lovely fabrics, carefully measuring and cutting material for new dresses for her well-to-do customers, and preparing remnants for discounted purchases. She occasionally spent some of her hard-earned salary to buy remnants to make herself a new dress.  Women customers knew she sewed and often consulted her about choosing fabrics or dress patterns for themselves. She enjoyed meeting people and helping them leave as satisfied customers.

She had lifelong friendships with some of the women she worked with at Miller’s—especially the Keirn sisters, Myrtle and Beatrice.  They had moved to Athens with their mother from Pennsylvania.  Myrtle later married Otto Kennedy, who was a local politician and served as McMinn County Sheriff.  Like Harriett, when she was in her forties, she had a daughter—and she was in my high school class.  Beatrice never married and always insisted I call her “Aunt Bea” like her nieces did. She loved handicrafts and made delicate Christmas ornaments from eggshells. And she introduced us to the original “red velvet cake” recipe!

These photos were made at the back door of the store, opening out onto an alleyway behind.  Obviously they didn’t have street sweepers then!  The women were probably thankful the store management didn’t make them clean the alleyways, too.  Harriett always talked about having to clean the bathrooms as part of her duties.

Because his mother was gone to work all day, Glenn stayed home with Grandmother Cate.  He always talked about how much she spoiled him, baking homemade “tea cakes” whenever he asked.  Harriett was thankful to have her parents living with them but felt sad at missing so much of her little boy’s daily life.

Although she was always patient and polite to customers, her favorite story was about losing her patience with one snobbish customer.  This prominent lady was always very demanding, and the clerks would try to pass her off to someone else whenever possible.  One day Harriett couldn’t avoid “waiting on” her.  It seemed obvious the woman was just passing the time and not really interested in shopping, but she asked Harriett to pull out one bolt of fabric after another for her perusal.  Finally, every bolt on the shelf was out on the counter.  Exasperated, Harriett asked, “Which would you like?”  The woman replied, “Oh, I’m just looking for a friend.”  That was the last straw.  Harriett replied, ”Well I can assure you your friend isn’t on this shelf!”

One of the store managers during her years at Miller’s was Jack Burn, her cousin from Niota.  He was Harry T. Burn’s brother. Years later, Jack would call Harriett on the phone to reminisce about those days at the store.

One Christmas vacation when I was home from college, I worked at that same Miller’s Department Store on the square in Athens!  Nothing much had changed.  There were no cash registers.  The office was on the mezzanine, and the clerk would put the money (cash or check only) in a two-piece hollow wooden ball, pull a cord when sent the carrier along a cable up to the office.  The clerk there would put the correct change due back and a receipt in the ball and return it to the cash register.  It was such fun operating the “cash railway” and no chance of the clerk’s being blamed for a calculation error!

Myrtle Keirn (L) and Beatrice Keirn

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