Tuesday, January 4, 2022

A Look Back at the Women Who Operated Department Store Elevators

 By Pamela Meyers

Marshall Fields Elevator Girl
See photo credit below

Are you old enough to remember going into large department stores where they had elevators, and the elevators had a person who operated the elevator? I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin that did not have large department stores. But when we traveled into Milwaukee or Chicago to shop, those stores had elevators operated by someone who sat on a little stool.

I don’t remember if the operators were male or female, but I learned recently that for a time, the elevators at Marshall Fields in Chicago were operated by women. Back when stores first hired women to run their elevators, the elevators required more than pushing a button like we do today. Each car contained levers to increase or slow the speed and the operator had to shut the elevator doors then collapse an accordion-like gate and before the car could begin its ascent or descent. 

According to Syracuse.com, the operator job was first assigned to men, but when the U.S. jumped into World War I, available men became scarce, and
A lady elevator operator in the 1910's
Source: Syracuse.com

women were hired as replacements. After the war, the returning men didn’t want to be “stuck” in a small box for nine or more hours a day and weren’t interested in the job. From then on, the position of elevator operator became a woman’s job.  

By the 1940s, women wore outfits similar to the uniforms flight attendants wore back in the fifties and sixties. All along, the operators received special training. But Marshall Fields took the training further and added an 8-week course similar to a “charm school.” The course covered makeup application, hair styling, and interacting with customers. They were also taught the proper enunciation of words they would routinely use on the job. The Marshall Fields “elevator girls,” as they were tagged, became so popular that the training school was featured in a 1947 issue of Life Magazine.

Training included "weight-reducing exercises"
See photo credit below

Fields Elevator Girls After
Their Training
See photo credit below.

Another possible perk of the job was being “discovered” and swept off to Hollywood, such as what
happened to Dorothy Lamour, a very popular actress back in the day. 

Dorothy Lamour
Public Domain  Wikimedia Commons

Seattle elevator girls inspection
Source: Museum of Science & Industry, Seattle

Soon large department stores in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, began hiring their own elevator girls. By the 1970s, self-operated elevators rendered the position unnecessary. But, it was fun while it lasted. 

 If you are old enough, do you remember elevator girls or something similar?

Photo Credits:
Photos of the Marshall Fields elevator girls and training:  Dr. Neil Gale, Illinois Digital Research Library of Illinois History, https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/

Pam Meyers lives in northern Illinois with her two rescue cats. She enjoys true-crime reality shows and old sitcoms, crocheting, and reading. 

When she isn't in Wisconsin, nosing around for new story ideas, she can be found at her church leading Bible studies and worshiping on Sunday mornings. 

She's written a four-book historical series set in Lake Geneva, along with Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva and several contemporary novels. All are available on Amazon in print or Kindle. 


  1. How interesting! I didn't know about elevator girls, I'm a country girl whose parents hated to travel. I do remember when there were still telephone operators, though. Thanks for posting!

    1. Yes, and I was one of those telephone operators back in the 60s. My hometown was a tourist town in summer and more operators were needed because every long distance call had to be made through an operator. High school and college girls were hired. It was great training.

  2. What a fun post! I didn't know about elevator girls. We lived in NJ and often went into New York City, and I do remember manned elevators at some of the places we went.

  3. I actually was an elevator girl at a hotel in Chicago in 1964. I lasted three days. Didn't like the ups and downs of the job! LOL!

    1. Louise, that's so interesting. I imagine it wasn't a job that many were called to do.

  4. Replies
    1. Ane, I"m going to tuck that comment away for the future!

  5. I remember Marshall Fields and the elevators. However, I don't remember the attendants. I found it interesting to learn how elevators worked. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  6. What a fun article. It would be fun to put an elevator girl into one of my books.