The Way It Was: Christmas Shopping in Downtown Detroit

Take a closer look at this image of Christmas shoppers in Downtown Detroit in 1952 and learn a little bit about the shops that once did business in the area.
A photograph of Christmas shoppers in Downtown Detroit in 1952. // Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.


In today’s mercantile world of Amazon, Wayfair, eBay, and other e-tailers, it’s easy to forget that shopping once meant a sensory experience, not just a virtual one. Certainly, shopping online is convenient and expedient, but what’s lacking is a sensuous encounter of touch and scent, as well as the social element of interacting with store clerks and being among throngs of other patrons.

This image shows a horde of Christmas shoppers in downtown Detroit, back when the area claimed three department stores, all clustered nearby.

At right, at Woodward and Gratiot, is Kern’s, with its signature clock. “I’ll meet you under the Kern’s clock” was a common saying among Detroiters. Just one block north, with Christmas trees displayed on its awning, is Hudson’s, the granddaddy of Detroit department stores. A stone’s throw to the east and visible in the background is Crowley’s.

The photo was taken the day after Thanksgiving, widely considered to be the official start of the Christmas shopping season — well before the term “Black Friday” was in wide circulation. It also predates the opening of malls such as Northland (1954) and Eastland (1957), which siphoned shoppers from the downtown retail center.

Kern’s opened in 1883 on St. Antoine, later moving to Randolph and Monroe and finally to its last location at Woodward and Gratiot. Kern’s fourth-floor children’s department was a busy place at Christmas and its annual September Founders sale drew huge crowds, but its clock was its most distinguishing feature.

Sadly, Kern’s closed its doors on Dec. 23, 1959, and was demolished in 1966. However, the clock was salvaged and placed in storage. Compuware Corp. (now called BMC Compuware) refurbished it and placed it in front of its headquarters at One Campus Martius, a comforting reminder that the hands of time can be turned back, if only in our imaginations.

This story is from the December 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition