As I was researching the history of The Fair and other Fort Worth department stores, I noticed a service mentioned often in their newspaper ads: the personal shopper.
Today the term personal shopper means a person who shops for and/or gives shopping advice—in person—to customers in a store.
But during the twentieth century the term had a different meaning. Department stores encouraged people who did not want to shop in person to shop by mailing or telephoning their orders to the department store, where orders were filled by a personal shopper.
So, a personal shopper back then was actually quite impersonal: The personal shopper never met a customer, never gave any shopping advice. The personal shopper merely opened the letters or answered the telephone calls, went into the stock room and fetched the requested merchandise, filled out the necessary paperwork, and sent the merchandise to the packing and mailing department.
Sometimes the merchandise that was featured in a store’s newspaper ad was accompanied by a coupon to be mailed to the store’s personal shopper.
Ads promoting personal shoppers appeared in newspapers throughout the year but especially at Christmas, when shoppers were more likely to feel overwhelmed by a long shopping list and a short amount of time.
Personal shoppers were popular among Fort Worth department stores in part because the Star-Telegram’s circulation area at the time was huge. The newspaper’s ads were read by shoppers, especially in west Texas, who didn’t want to drive two or three hours to Fort Worth to shop but had few in-person shopping options among the smaller towns that were closer.
Department stores began offering the personal shopper early in the twentieth century.
At first ads featured a nameless “personal shopper.”
In Fort Worth Stripling’s personal shopper had no name in 1919.
Monnig’s was a bit more personal with its personal shopper in 1920: She was “Miss Shopper.”
But about that time most department stores began to humanize their personal shopper in ads by including her name. And I write “her” for a reason: A personal shopper, when named in an ad, was always a woman.
That was just smart retailing: Most of the shoppers using the personal shopper service were women, who would prefer to trust another woman to make their sight-unseen purchase for them.
By 1942 and 1946 ads for Stripling’s and Monnig’s were including the names of the personal shoppers: Jane Alden and Peggy Prim.
That’s when I noticed a trend in ads:
The Christian and surname of personal shoppers usually had a total of three syllables. As in Jane Alden and Peggy Prim.
Nary a Delfinia van Leeuwenhoek, Isabella Clatterbuck, or Joan Jacobina Jingleheimer Schmidt did I find.
In fact, Stripling’s Jane Alden revealed a trend within a trend: Retailers clearly preferred that their personal shopper have a name that was, well, plain Jane.
And that bottom name in the panel of ads above, “Jane Worth,” brings us to two surnames that were common among personal shoppers.
The first was “Worth.”
For example, Margaret Worth was the personal shopper for Scarbrough’s Department Store in Austin for forty-one years—from 1924 until 1965.
“Did Fort Worth have personal shoppers named ‘Worth’?” I hear you ask.
Two “Worths”’ worth.
First there was Barbara Worth. In 1929 when Sanger’s opened its new store in Fort Worth, the store advertised in the Abilene newspaper: Personal shopper Barbara Worth would fill the orders of Abilenians 150 miles away.
The Christian name of Fort Worth’s other “Worth” personal shopper tacked on a syllable to the plain-Jane name: “Janelle Worth.” She was the R. E. Cox personal shopper for forty-two years—from 1939 to 1981.
Janelle apparently worked in roller skates. Because on October 13, 1964 she was offering to help Cox shoppers in Fort Worth. . . .
Three days later she was in Oklahoma City with Kerr’s Department Stores!
(Come on, Ok City, show some imagination!)
“Betty” was a popular Christian name among personal shoppers, and the parents of personal shoppers clearly were an alliterative lot: The Christian name “Betty” was often paired with a surname beginning with B. Above are five.
And that brings us to the other recurring surname among personal shoppers: “Brown.”
Above are four.
But among the Browns, one Christian name stood out.
You guessed it: “Betty.”
Here are three.
Betty Brown at White & Kirk Department Store in Amarillo filled orders for forty-five years—from 1943 to 1968.
And, yes, Fort Worth had its Betty Browne, occasionally spelled without the end e. She worked at The Fair for seventeen years.
Finally it hit me like a ton of “Duh!”: These women were not real people. The names of these personal shoppers were made up! Department stores knew that because the public never met personal shoppers, “Janelle Worth” or “Betty Brown” could be anyone. She could be a he. Heck, she could be any number of people of both genders. The personal shoppers named in all those ads around the country were just a representation of the real—and unnamed—people who filled the orders. The names of personal shoppers were chosen to be simple and bland.
Betty Brown existed no more than Betty Crocker did!
I haven’t been so disillusioned since I found out that Reddy Kilowatt wasn’t a hometown boy.
By the end of the twentieth century most department stores had stopped offering customers the option of using personal shoppers to place orders. When personal shoppers had been introduced a century ago, shopping by mail or telephone made sense. Fewer people drove, public transportation was not as widespread.
And stores were fewer and farther between. But satellite stores, first in the strip centers and then the shopping malls, made the personal shopper less relevant as customers who had lived fifteen miles from a downtown store suddenly lived only five miles from a satellite store.
Newspapers also had become fewer and smaller—department stores advertised less.
(If satellite stores hadn’t killed the personal shopper, the Internet certainly would have.)
One by one the Janelle Worths, Betty Browns, and all the other personal shoppers cleaned out their desk, punched the time clock one final time, and rode the elevator to retail heaven.
Life Span of Major Fort Worth Retailers
Stripling’s 114 years (1893-2007)
Washer Brothers 106 years (1882-1988)
Ellison’s 104 years (1888-1992)
Monnig’s 99 years (1889-1988)
R. E. Cox 74 years (1933-2007)
The Fair 73 years (1890-1963)
Meacham’s 69 years (1905-1974)
Leonard’s 56 years (1918-1974)
Sanger’s 36 years (1875-1880, 1896, 1917-1930, 1970-1987)