Framingham exhibit brings the original Shoppers World to life

Shoppers World’s Ask Me girls stand at the ready equipped with large transistor radios to provide up-to-the-second World Series scores for shoppers on the mall’s opening day in 1951. Framingham History Center

When the original Shoppers World opened in Framingham in 1951, the owners feared that people would stay away because it was the same day as the first game of the World Series.

So they enlisted a corps of Ask Me girls who walked around the mall with transistor radios the size of laptop computers and could instantly provide the score. All you had to do was ask them.

Maybe it was the fact that the Red Sox were not in that series or maybe it really was the Ask Me girls, but 25,000 people showed up that day, according to news accounts.


What is more likely is that the huge turnout came because the concept of an all-encompassing shopping mall, with Jordan Marsh protected from the elements by a gigantic dome, along with smaller shops, restaurants, a cinema, and community gathering areas, was brand-new at the time.

Now a new exhibit brings back some of that nostalgia. It is called “Shoppers World, 1951-1994’’ and it can be viewed at the Framingham History Center’s Edgell Memorial Library through Sept. 30.

Shoppers World was the first shopping mall to open east of the Rockies, beaten by just a hair in the final stages of construction by a mall in the Pacific Northwest.

But when the dome was torn down in 1994 to make room for what is now a modern shopping plaza bearing the same name, only two people showed up to watch, according to Ruth Colson — herself and a friend she took along.

Colson was there for sentimental reasons: She worked at Jordan Marsh for 20 years and loved her time under the iconic dome.

So when the Natick retiree heard that the Framingham History Center was holding a round-table discussion about the long-gone Framingham landmark, she attended to tell her story.

Somehow both the poignancy of Colson’s decision to watch the dome be torn down in 1994 and the enthusiasm of the other attendees at the round-table discussion struck a chord with Annie Murphy, executive director of the history center, and she decided to create an entire exhibit paying homage to this former icon.


The result is the exhibit at the library.

“What fascinates me is how brilliant these developers and marketing people were. They were the precursors to ‘Mad Men,’ ’’ said Murphy, with the same reverence one might expect someone in her position to show for the Minutemen or the town’s founding fathers.

In what she believes to be the first demographic analysis ever done for the specific purpose of locating a business, marketers determined that “Framingham was the ideal location for this kind of innovation, and the town was willing and able to say let’s try this bold new experiment,’’ Murphy said.

Newly completed construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike made the location easy to reach, and the past decade had seen a rapid growth in the percentage of households with cars, so shoppers no longer felt confined to the city.

“They designed it so that it was very easy to get to,’’ said Murphy. “At the time, people from these towns went into the city for a lot of their shopping, but that was an all-day affair.’’

Shoppers World presented a new concept: shopping as a fun family excursion.

And when 25,000 people showed up for opening day, the planners knew their experiment had paid off.


Murphy is enthusiastic when she discusses what the current exhibit includes.

She rattles off the Shoppers World artifacts: “A model of the layout of Shoppers World; boxes from Jordan Marsh, as well as old charge cards and employee name tags from the store; wooden soldiers that were brought out every year for the mall’s holiday decor; buttons from the Windsor button shops; posters and flyers advertising Shoppers World; photos of some of the major events that went on there.’’

The exhibition also includes what many see as the eternal symbol of Shoppers World: its neon sign, which the Framingham History Center illuminated in front of 200 spectators to kick off the exhibit last month.

For Colson, it is the bags and boxes from the various shops that make the exhibit emblematic of her Shoppers World memories.

She is not alone in her memories.

Kerry Dunne grew up less than a mile from Shoppers World and visited it often with her family. As soon as she turned 16, she got her first job at the movie theater there.

Although it has been more than 20 years since she held that job, she and her former co-workers still have regular reunions, and for Dunne, who is the K-12 social studies director for the Arlington public schools, an exhibit like this reflects something important, not just about Shoppers World, but about history itself.

“Too often, history is made to seem like something from the distant past,’’ she said. “This is something historical that people feel personally connected to. For me, the exhibit brings back really happy and fun memories of my teenage years.’’



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