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What is trash and what is history?


Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

The Virginia Historical Society is honored to host Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt as guest author of this blog post.

Imagine this scenario: your family runs a retail store for five generations. After operating for 150 years, the business sells. The family is left with truckloads of files, documents, photographs, fixtures, shopping bags, signage, et cetera. Some of it is sold at auction, but the rest of it sits in a big, abandoned building downtown. What is worth keeping? Where will you keep it?

This is the dilemma my family faced in 1992 when Thalhimers became known as Hechts (now Macy’s). It pains me to share with you that two eighteen-wheelers went straight to the dump, filled to the brim with things that were deemed trash. I still daydream about what may have been in those trucks, especially considering that my family has a knack for getting rid of stuff. Grandpa (William B. Thalhimer Jr.) prided himself on keeping his desk clean at all times, only focusing on one document at a time. He was the opposite of a packrat. My environmentalist side cringes at the thought of so much paper going straight to the landfill.


Thalhimers department store, 1914, Broad Street, Richmond, VA. Photo by Walter Washington Foster. (Virginia Historical Society 1991.1.21602)

I’m sure it was overwhelming to process what was happening at the time, and there was a prevalent sense of “let’s just get this thing over with.” But how do you decide what is trash and what is history?

Fortunately, a small collection of documents, annual reports, employee newsletters, and other ephemera was saved. My father and my aunt and uncle decided to donate this collection to the Virginia Historical Society in honor of their parents, Barbara J. and William B. Thalhimer, Jr.

I recently asked Dad about this decision, and he said, “We felt like if we gave everything we had to the Virginia Historical Society, the collection wouldn’t get dispersed across the family or lost over time. When I served two terms on the VHS Board, it cemented in my mind that we couldn’t have made a better choice. VHS is one of the finest history museums in the country, doing state-of-the-art preservation work as well as providing public access. They hold their staff, their board, their donors, and their visitors in high esteem. It’s a well-run organization, which reflects the values held intimately by Thalhimers.”

He reminded me that we chose the VHS for the launch of my book Finding Thalhimers in 2010 and that it set the record for the society’s largest attendance for a book launch and more than tripled the VHS’s book sales record for a single day. It also gave us the perfect chance to let the public know that the Thalhimers collection had a good, permanent home that they could visit whenever they wanted.

When the downtown Thalhimers building was about to be demolished, I asked that the management please save the clock above the 6th Street entrance, which dated back to the 1930s. It was saved and given to my family in a ceremony celebrating the performing arts center to be built on the site of the old department store headquarters. Realizing that the clock was too big to fit in the back of anyone’s car, much less hang on the wall, Dad and I decided to add it to the collection at the VHS.

Thalhimers Clock

Thalhimers Clock in the Virginians At Work exhibition (Virginia Historical Society 2007.115)

Now, when I walk through the Virginians at Work exhibition with my own children, I smile every time I see that clock hanging on the wall. Ironically, it symbolizes a very different time in the history of business. My children will never know what it was like to shop at Thalhimers, but thanks to the Virginia Historical Society they will always be able to learn about what Thalhimers was.

By Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove comments that are offensive, threatening, or insulting.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 11/19/2012 9:28 am

    Wonderful story. I miss the days of the downtown department stores. Hopefully you still have the seven-layer cake recipe!


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