Caplan's, and the retail trade

150 Years of Howard History

April 03, 2001

Gertrude D. Caplan, 92, whose husband, Samuel H. Caplan, was born in Ellicott City and ran Caplan's Department Store for more than 50 years, was interviewed by folklorist Alison Kahn in 1997 as part of an oral history project coordinated by Friends of Patapsco Valley & Heritage Greenway Inc.

Members of the Caplan family opened their department store in 1895. The store went out of business in 1977. Sam Caplan, who died in 1990, was born in the apartment upstairs and lived there all his life. Gertrude Caplan now lives in Baltimore.

Well, I was born in Baltimore in ... 1909 ... I had three sisters and two brothers ... they were twins, but the young boy died when he was a baby which left us with just the one brother, Howard [Klein]. Our life was very much like any of the other children's lives at that time. We went to school ... and we went walking and playing ball and all [the] other play things that other children did.[My mother] was born [in Russia]. ... She came from there when she was 8 years old. ... Dad was born in Hagerstown, in America, and Dad was a German Jew and Mother was Russian Jewess. We lived in the neighborhood of Eastern Avenue and Spring Street. ...

Oh, Mr. Caplan was met in Ellicott City by me. ... On Main Street. Main Street, Ellicott City. That was many, many years ago. ... Sam was 10 years older than I was. And [Sam] just started coming in on Sundays, which he had free from the time when the store was closed, to my mother's home.... I know that he fell in love with me, and we got very close to one another and I fell in love with him. ... Yes, I had had different boyfriends, but they didn't mean anything to me. I worked, and I was employed in a store in Baltimore ... in Hochschild Kohn's ... doing retail. And I remained there for six years.

I got married ... [in] Caplan's Department Store. That's where I was married, at my husband's old home. My husband's mother, although she had died, left a large house and it was many rooms. ...

After I got married, naturally I had learned much about the department trade ... having worked at Hochschild's, I learned much about shoe experience. ... Caplan's Department Store carried a little bit of everything. They carried, you know, men's, women's, children's, infant's, boy's, girl's ... dress clothes, shoes. ... It was advertised as [Howard County's first and largest department store]. ...[It was the early 1930s.] I did the buying, selling, I did every bit of everything in that store. ... Well, little by little, the shoes, every department in the store - I worked it to the bone. ... I don't know whether it sat well with Sam the way we fixed the place up, but I made up my mind that we were going to modernize a little bit. ...

I dumped every bit of the stuff that was there. [The mannequins] were all no good - no good, no good at all. ... I found out from Baltimore, the Baltimore Display Co. had a large place, and they supplied us with mannequins. ... We had two windows, and they were beautiful and we had all lovely decorations. We made them, and we bought them and we practically trimmed them from nothing. ... Well, the children's department, it was always our heart's delight. I loved the children's department.[We bought clothing] in Baltimore. New York came later on. You see, we spent 50-some years in Ellicott City with a little department store. And as the years went on, we bought things that were pretty in Ellicott City. ... There were two department stores at that time ... we and the Economy Department Store. ... There was never another department store like Caplan's though. ... Well, we had Florsheim shoes, [Hart Schaffner and Marks]. ...

Well, they'd come in and buy something in the store, and they'd pay so much down and put so much [to] pay a week. And say they'd promise to pay a week and didn't pay for a month, and if they supposedly would pay for a month, they wouldn't pay for two months. And [Sam] bought property the same way. Sam was a very loose landlord. ... People were very close together and we knew them, and we just couldn't do anything with them.... [Sam] owned a great deal of property in Ellicott City. I don't believe Sam actually knew, to be truthful with you, what he owned and what he didn't own. ... We had the only building with the elevator. ...

We never heard anything like [discrimination]. We never heard anything like that. If there was any voiced or spoken, we didn't hear it. We didn't pay any attention to it. ...

Don't ask me, don't ask me [about the flood]. I think that was really the turning point of Ellicott City. That was the turning point. ... That was the downfall of our business ... because it just, everything just sort of was washed away, it was washed away. ... We had to walk upstairs off the second floor to walk out ... the back door. ... By way of the roof, yes, over the roof and up to Taylor Manor. ...[And later] there were different malls, there were different shopping centers springing up. There were all different kind of things turning up.

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