Christmas Shopping in a Bygone Era

A Christmas advertisement from the Sacramento Star Dec. 20, 1905.

Christmas Shopping in a Bygone Era

Melina Druga
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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.

1890

An ad for Houghton & Dutton, Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 1890
An ad for Houghton & Dutton, Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 1890

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.

1895

A ad for The Palace, The Nashville American, Dec. 22, 1895
A ad for The Palace, The Nashville American, Dec. 22, 1895

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, 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 featured 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.

1900

An ad for Wight & Brother, The Weekly Tallahasseean, Dec. 20, 1900
An ad for Wight & Brother, The Weekly Tallahasseean, Dec. 20, 1900

An ad in The Weekly Tallahasseean 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):

  • Fireworks
  • Pipes
  • Celluloid novelties
  • Toilet water

1905

John Smyth Co., Chicago Tribune, Dec. 17, 1905
John Smyth Co., Chicago Tribune, Dec. 17, 1905

John M. Smyth Co. in Chicago dealt in furniture.

“The hour has struck – the dreaded eleventh hour of the holiday trading season has arrived,” the retailer said Dec. 17, 1905.

Even though Christmas was 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

1910

An ad for N. Diamond & Bros., Arizona Republic, Dec. 20, 1910
An ad for N. Diamond & Bros., Arizona Republic, Dec. 20, 1910

Diamond & Bros. Boston Store in Phoenix offered “the right kind of merchandise, coupled with low prices and excellent store service.” 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

1915

An ad for the Kaufmann Store, The Richmond Times Dispatch, Dec. 21, 1915
An ad for the Kaufmann Store, The Richmond Times Dispatch, Dec. 21, 1915

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 the ad was speaking directly to men because the only goods for sale in the advertisement were women’s skirts.

Plaid or linens skirts were being sold at $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.”

1920

An ad for Aaron's, New York Daily News, Dec. 22, 1920
An ad for Aaron’s, New York Daily News, Dec. 22, 1920

Furs coats were the big draw in an ad for Aaron’s on Dec. 22, 1920.  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.”

Do you enjoy Christmas shopping?  Why or why not?  Leave a comment below.

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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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