Second floor, ladies’ underwear!

Barney's 1935 floor plan.png

Shout that out on an elevator today, and the kids won’t understand what you’re talking about. Literally. I’ve done it with my kids, and they thought I was insane. So, here’s the deal: We used to build up, instead of sprawling across the earth. The invention of stairs allowed this. Mr. Otis’s invention of the elevator let us build a little higher. This allows stores to have multiple floors. Elevators used to have operators, people who pulled levers, aligned the car with the floor and worked the doors. In department stores, these operators were also responsible for telling you what floor you were on, and what was available on that floor. And so if, for example, you were in Schenectady’s H.S. Barney store in, oh, say, 1935, when the elevator achieved the second floor the operator would open the doors and cry out, “Second floor! Women’s wear, children’s apparel, ladies’ underwear! Beauty parlor on your left! Watch your step! Coming out!” And so on. Nowadays, if you can find an elevator in a department store, it’s usually tucked into the scariest corner of the store, is self-operating, and does not warn people that you’re coming out.

The last elevators with operators that I knew of were in the New York State Capitol, but even they were automated sometime in 2006. As a result, “elevator operator” is no longer on the PSAT career aptitude list.

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