The Window Shop was started in the spring of 1939 by a small group of women with no plan, business experience, or work experience outside of their homes. They were the wives of Harvard professors and professionals, and together they pooled $65 for the founding of the Window Shop. Their mission was to assist immigrants, primarily from Germany and Austria, fleeing Nazi persecution. These refugees faced a set of challenges that the Window Shop women were brave enough to meet with compassion and innovation unmatched anywhere else.
The Window Shop opened in the spring of 1939 at 37 Church Street in a building with a large front window which inspired the name of the organization. The Harvard wives purchased some merchandise to sell, but mostly accepted the products and skills of the refugees on consignment. Refugees were encouraged to work at the shop, in order to meet new people and share their hardships so that they would not feel alone in their new country. The Shop hired more people than it needed in order to assist as many as possible, and as a result, its earliest days were marked by disorganization and minimal fiscal feasibility.
Mary Mohrer was the answer for the Window Shop’s early problems and she would remain its heart and soul for the duration of the Shop’s existence. Mary had studied art in Vienna, possessed an excellent design taste, and spoke five languages. She had a welcoming personality and eased the development of warm friendships throughout the Shop. After the business training she received from Bessie Jones, she ran the Window Shop with precision and efficiency. One of her earliest successes was a stroke of luck. Low on clothes, she wore a dirndl to work one day—a day on which a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor happened to be visiting the Shop for an article. The resulting photo alongside the article was the Shop’s first publicity and dirndl sales kept the shop afloat in its early days.
It was clear to all who volunteered at and visited the Window Shop that this group of ladies was much more than a small, neighborhood shop. The Window Shop was often the first buyer of the goods an immigrant was trying to sell—be it handmade European crafts or Viennese pastries. The goods were almost always contributed by women who had become their family’s sole providers while their husbands were retraining for employment in America. Lack of knowledge of English and childcare were two major problems refugees faced, and the Window Shop took on the role of a social service provider to ease the transition. Window Shop employees, Americans and immigrants who had stayed with the Shop after settling in the Boston area, assisted incoming refugees with finding English lessons, means of transportation, health care options, and maintaining loose working hours to allow time to care for children and families.
Over the years, the Window Shop would move several times, and finally settled on Brattle Street after purchasing the Cock Horse Inn at the Blacksmith House in 1947. It had been incorporated as a charitable organization in 1941. While struggling to become viable, a Tea Room and Pastry Shop was added to the Gift/Dress Shop, which later became a restaurant and bakery. In the summer the patio dining may have been the first outdoor eatery in the square. In the early 1940s, it was one of the few businesses in Cambridge to hire African Americans, and arguably the first to employ black women.
The Window Shop thrived in Harvard Square for many years because of the atmosphere of determination among the employees, volunteers, customers, and the board of directors. Refugees were employed and counseled, and made to feel welcome to the area. The goods the Shop sold were unlike anything Harvard Square had ever seen. The meals were good, the gifts were unique, and the dresses were beautiful. Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Walter Gropius, Elizabeth Taylor, Hume Cronyn, and Jessica Tandy all visited the Shop and spoke well of it.
By the late 1960s, however, European goods were no longer unique to the area, and refugees coming to Boston were not in the shared plight of earlier decades of Window Shop employees. As the primary staff began to retire, it was difficult to find replacements with the same drive and understanding of the Window Shop as its founders. In 1971, the Board President wrote that the original purpose of the Window Shop had largely disappeared. The following year the gift shop and restaurant-turned-café closed and the property was sold to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, who promised to maintain the bakery until all the employees retired. The Scholarship Fund, named for President Elsa Brändström Ulich, continued to assist immigrants in need of assistance to finance their education until 1987 when the organization was dissolved and all remaining assets were left to longtime employees as well as Radcliffe College, Northeastern University, and the Boston Foundation.
The Window Shop, today, is only a small part of Harvard Square’s diverse history, but its’ leaders, hopes, and influence are all examples of the importance one idea can be for thousands of people. An unmatched Cambridge institution—the Window Shop continues to remind us today, more than 30 years after the Shop’s closing, that a community working together to welcome and assist its immigrants creates a community of cross-cultural benefactors and beneficiaries.
In March 2004, the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project celebrated the history of the Window Shop, and in 2007 a book of the history of the Window Shop was published: The Window Shop: Safe Harbor for Refugree, 1939-1972, written by Ellen Miller, Ilse Heyman, and Dorothy Dahl. A peer-counseling program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, named in memory of Mary Mohrer, keeps alive the spirit of the Window Shop, and the papers of the Window Shop were donated to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College to preserve the Shop’s story for future generations.
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.