1928 Christmas display window of the Specialty Shop owned by Renska Swart.
Photo Credit: WHC 1963.001.0064.001.83
“Despite the hurry and scurry occasioned by holiday activities, countless passersby have paused to admire the unique and historically interesting window display at the shop of Renska Swart, on North High St., where “The Nativity” is vividly portrayed in miniature.”
Holiday window displays at The Specialty Shop owned by Renska Ladd Swart, were incredible works of art. By making use of every odd minute and working late into the night she was able to turn her inspiration into a concrete thing of beauty, much as an artist paints a scene upon canvas. To accomplish the magic, she converted a back storeroom into a tiny workshop with each work surface covered with paste pots, gesso, clay, string, paint, thread, brushes and every kind of material imaginable. Out of this tiny workshop, brought into being by the artistic talent of Miss Swart, came the Christmas themed “Nativity” window and other holiday window displays.
The Specialty Shop was strictly for the ladies, specializing in corsets, hosiery, lingerie, notions and gift novelties. From 1927 to 1930 it was located at 244 High St. sandwiched between the Senator Hotel and the Stage Terminal Building. Those buildings are long gone, replaced by the Salem Transit Mall and adjacent Courthouse Square. The main entry door of The Specialty Shop was flanked by large windows. The window at the left of the entrance door was used for business purposes, including a discreet sign. The window to the right of the entrance hosted holiday themed displays throughout the year such as the Nativity-themed window mentioned above.
This particular window in 1928 boasted a branch from the famed cedars of Lebanon nestled amidst a mixture of fir boughs, mistletoe and poinsettia flowers. Nestled in the branches below at the bottom of the window case amongst shepherds and sheep and a stray camel or two are two little brass jars brought from Damascus and a little mother of pearl star brought from Jerusalem by Miss Lina Heist of Salem. The window opposite continued the theme with a display of several pieces of tapestry brought from Palestine, also from the collection of Miss Heist.
The focal point of the window was of course the stable with Madonna and child, attended by three wise men presenting their choicest gifts, shepherds, cattle and sheep. And above the stable shines the Bethlehem star from the midst of a galaxy of lesser stars and miniature angels flying gracefully about. Perhaps most notably, in the background hung a sizable plaque of midnight blue, lettered in white, bearing an original poem entitled “The Star,” written by Miss Swart.
Bright shining star of God’s “inverted bowl”,
Oh, tell me, are you traveling to a goal,
Or, is your happy mission just to shine,
And brighten all this struggling life of mine?
What pictures bright you form upon the sky;
But all obscure if floating clouds are night.
Are all your dippers filled with sparkling dew,
for thirsty ones who come to sip with you?
Long years ago one shone in splendor bright,
And moved with grace and beauty thru the night
To guide the lowly shepherds and the wise
To a baby King who came from paradise.
I see you coming swiftly, falling star,
Are you God’s messenger who comes from far,
to tell me of His kindly loving care,
That He is in me, ’round me, everywhere?
I pray the God who holds you in his hand,
To give me light that I may understand
His scheme of things up there in mystic blue,
And maze of things for me to travel thru.
So what of the businesswoman who makes and manages all of this? Renska Ladd Swart was born July 21, 1882 in McPherson, Kansas to George & Tjerkje (Beckie) Swart. She was the second child in a family that would grow to include six children: Martin, Renska, Addena, Wikje, Hidde and Martha. Both parents were in the shop-keeping business. George managed Stonebrink & Company in Conway, Kansas, a general merchandise store and after the family moved to Woodburn, Oregon in the early 1890s, mother Beckie established a “racket store” a type of dime store. When the family moved to Salem a few years later Beckie set up shop again, this time specializing in notions, ladies undergarments and bric-a-brac. Renska grew up clerking in her mother’s store, and eventually took over the day-to-day operation renaming it The Specialty Shop.