The commercialization of Christmas began during the Victorian era. Retailers encouraged consumers to shop for the holidays instead of giving homemade gifts, and shop employees also decorated their shop windows with lavish displays to attract passersby. The tradition of Christmas shopping was born.
So what were the popular gifts in this bygone era? Let’s find out by examining a sampling of store ads from 1890-1920.
Readers of The Boston Globe on Dec. 21, 1890, found deals in an ad from Houghton & Dutton, located at Tremont and Beacon Streets. The shop’s ad took up nearly a third of the page and included these gift ideas:
- English seal sacques (sacks), $25
- Holiday aprons, between 19 cents and 98 cents
- Music boxes, starting at $1.98
- Children’s rubber boots, 17 cents
- Photo albums, 59 cents and 94 cents
- Hand dipped coconut bonbons, 15 cents a pound
“Patrons in search of something for a present that always has a place in the home will do well to visit this department,” the ad said of upholstery.
The Palace in Nashville promised shoppers “Extra values for the holidays. Here is where low prices reign.”
The store’s ad was published Sunday, Dec. 22, 1895, in the Nashville American with the guarantee that Monday and Tuesday would have the best prices. Deals included:
- Dolls, from 10 cents to $10
- Fur trimmed beaver capes, $1.75
- Combination purse and card case, 75 cents
- Ostrich feathered boas, $4
- Shaving sets, 50 percent off
- Boys double breasted suits, $3.75
“Suitable Christmas gifts for young and old at half regular price. Read, think and act,” the Palace told shoppers.
An ad in The Weekly Tallahasseean on Dec. 20, 1900, urged shoppers to visit Wight & Brother, Druggists for “the most beautiful assortment of goods ever offered to the public.” Shoppers were told “feast you eyes on this splendid collection” and be “dazzled and delighted.”
Gift ideas included (no prices given):
- Celluloid novelties
- Toilet water
John M. Smyth Co. was a Chicago furniture dealer.
“The hour has struck – the dreaded eleventh hour of the holiday trading season has arrived,” the retailer said Dec. 17, 1905, in the Chicago Tribune.
Even though Christmas is nearly here, the retailer warned, “there is no occasion for making purchases pell-mell and in a whirl of hurry and excitement.”
Pieces for sale included:
- Combination bookcase and writing desk, $8.75
- 20th century talking machine (phonograph), $8.25
- Pedestal, $3.95
- Parlor lamp, $3.25
Diamond & Bros. Boston Store in Phoenix offered “the right kind of merchandise, coupled with low prices and excellent store service,” an ad in the Arizona Republic on Dec. 20, 1910, said.
The week of Christmas would be unusually crowded and shoppers were instructed to come early, especially in the mornings.
Holiday sales included:
- Ladies waists (shirtwaists), 25 percent off
- Willow plumes, 25 percent off
- Silk kimonos, $7.50
- Ladies rubber coats, $10
The Kaufmann Store in Richmond, Virginia, was clear it was better to not give any gift than to give a “carelessly chosen” one. It appears that the Dec. 21, 1915, ad (published in the Richmond Times Dispatch) was speaking directly to men because the only goods for sale in the advertisement were women’s skirts.
Plaid or linens skirts were sold for $2.49. The linen skirts featured detachable belts, pearl buttons and other details while the plaid skirts were in “conservative colorings, such as even the most quiet taste will be suited.”
Furs coats were the big draw in an ad for Aaron’s on Dec. 22, 1920, in the New York Daily News. Coats ranged from $60 to $725.
“The difference between the best quality furs and pelts of other grades is great,” the retailer said, “One is an economy – the other an extravagance.”
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Updated: 28 October 2020
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