posted in: Day In The Life 14
Brassiere in a box, c. 1954. Image: Wikipedia.
Brassiere in a box, c. 1954. Image: Wikipedia.


This afternoon I did a handful of demos at the Iowa Quilt Museum. The museum is housed in a gorgeous, late 19th century building on the town square of my hometown of Winterset, IA. I’m so proud to be from Winterset, proud that the state quilt museum is about 1.5 blocks from my mom’s house.

The building that houses the IQM used to be a JCPenny department store. I remember going in there as a kid. I remember the sweatpants on racks, the baby clothes hung on the back wall, the menswear department, the housewares — all of it. It’s where you went to get clothes and sheets and a lot more if you were a Wintersetian back in the day. Our small-town JCPenny department store looked a lot different from how a big city or suburban department store looks today, it’s true; but our JCPenny was one shop with many sections, so it was a department store to us.

The renovated, retro-fitted mezzanine where I did my demos today was one of the more interesting places I’ve worked. This is because I realized that I got my first training bra on that very mezzanine.

Seriously. I was talking to people about the American quilt, stitching on a Singer Featherweight owned by my grandmother and I remembered that I got my first bra in the same exact spot where I was sewing. Saying “I got my first bra” is to say that when I was beside myself with grief for one, Mom purchased for me a cotton slingshot. That’s what training bras are, of course: cotton slingshots. Question: What were we training for, by the way? Did we have a choice?

Life is weird. I remember I got a pastel yellow bra and a pastel pink bra. The yellow, interestingly, was my favorite of the two. Each bra was literally two triangles and a piece of string. Like I cared how it was made. When I put on the bra (especially the buttercream yellow one) I felt so beautiful, so grown-up. I remember looking in the mirror and feeling like a force of nature. I felt like a woman, finally. I felt like a person.

Today — and tonight, doing a lecture on the ground floor of the old JCPenny’s — I thought, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

14 Responses

  1. Colleen
    | Reply

    I remember my mother buying fabric at J C Penny’s with the clerk using an automatic measuring “thing”.
    Ha ha are we going backward?? No automatic measuring now it’s all by hand and counting out loud too!
    And the fabric bolts were 36 inches not 45 inches
    And I got all my underpants there Lollipop brand

  2. jean m
    | Reply

    Great story, thanks for sharing!

  3. Gail
    | Reply

    Our JC Penny had a fabric department on the balcony. They would run the fabric edge through a meter that measured it, push a lever to notch it and then rip the fabric. I loved going there to purchase fabric.

  4. Carol
    | Reply

    Great post. I remember when my mom took me for my 1st bra? Isn’t it amazing we had to be fitted? Anyway, I’ll never forget my mom telling me I had to wear it every day, whether I needed it or not. Such a long time ago…..

  5. Gina
    | Reply

    What a coincidence…..I think Missouri Star Quilt (one of its buildings, at least) is in a JC Penney’s…..I think he was born in Hamilton, MO. And I love going to places and remembering what they used to be!!

  6. PegD
    | Reply

    I smiled at your post Mary. Seeing the picture of the box reminded me of my story about a bra box. Not mine, but the boxes I got with a friends Mom’s quilt stash that I was lucky enough to receive. She had several bra boxes filled with thread and notions. I felt suddenly close to her now that I had such intimate information about this dear woman and her stuff. Funny how such things can bring us together. Thanks for the smiles.

  7. Lindsey
    | Reply

    Our small town JCPenneys had clear pneumatic tubes to send the money to a cashier somewhere at the top and back of the store. Then the change would come back to the salesperson through the tube. The children were fascinated watching the tubes flying around above them. It seems like a dream of a memory now.

    The pale print on your blog is difficult for old eyes to read.

  8. Lisa E
    | Reply

    A double-barrel cotton slingshot, no less!

  9. Brenda
    | Reply

    I was in Winterset at the museum two weeks ago, just a day before the big bridge festival. Loved the musuem and the town square and the fabric shop.

  10. Jackie O
    | Reply

    ‘Sew’ glad to meet you, Mary, at your Thursday evening presentation at the Iowa Quilt Museum. I love it when the ‘small town girl (or boy) makes it ‘big’ and comes home to share her/his life experiences. No one needs to tell you to take life by the tail because you already do just that! And I love reading about it all on PG!!

  11. J M
    | Reply

    There was a place called Westbury Square in Houston, Tx that was great. Small shops, a book store, soda fountain, it was awesome. Got torn down for a Home Depot. It pretty much went bust when the air-conditioned indoor malls got big. I remember the bookstore especially, we’d been assigned The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton to read for english class, and me being the great student I was, I put it off ’til the last minute and went to the bookstore and bought a copy of The Outsider by Richard Wright instead. Heavy reading for a fifteen year old. Anyhow,check out pics of Wesbury Square on the internet. it was something else. I remember fireworks there as a kid. Anyhow, Mary, I like this story. It’s got a Garrison Keillor vibe to it, yeah, I know, he never got a training bra but I can almost hear this on the radio – it’s an easy kind of Prairie Home Companion piece. I know this isn’t nearly the same thing, but I can remember hitting the big change as a boy and learning how to tie a tie and feeling all roostered up so to speak. Had to wear a tie to work, I was a grocery bagger, first job. Anyhow, take care, hope all goes well, keep an eye on that red couch and take good care of yourself my non-blonde friend. I think of JC Penny, Westbury Square, ties and books, training bras and socks and quite frankly the internet scares me. Big things are getting lost in this big mouse click of convenience. I’ll shut up now. p.s. – do you ever think about sparking up a radio show? I think you might be able to pull that off.

  12. Sarah
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    So many memories! The Penney’s in my home town also had a mezzanine and the pneumatic tubes. I had to fight to get my first bra (I think I finally got a cast-off from a more developed friend) and now I refuse to wear one. Have been reading “A History of the Breast” by Marilyn Yalom –it has a huge bibliography and many interesting facts & insights.

  13. Demise
    | Reply

    I really enjoy your blog. You make me smile everyday. I’m kind of a homebody, and I’m having to reinvent myself, so I live through your experiences (not in a creepy way, just enjoyable), and learn something everytime I read Papergirl. Ignore my horrible grammer, lol. Just thanks Mary.

    • Denise
      | Reply

      Also, my name is Denise. Auto corrct is so annoying!!

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