Christmas Shopping, 1920

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Originally pubished December 2008

The other day, I was looking up an obituary in the 1920 Creston Review.  The gentleman in question had died late in the year, and as I turned the pages of the papers I noticed a few interesting things. 

For one thing, there was not a single ad – not one – for Christmas goods before December.  These days, it seems the Christmas shopping season starts earlier and earlier every year, but not so in 1920.  The earliest store advertising for Christmas appeared in the December 3 issue.

Mac Boyd, manager of the Hardware and Furniture Supply Company, advised his customers that “The most appreciated Christmas Gift is something useful.  For the men we call attention to our stock of Gillette Safety Razors and Blades.  Not a bit too early, either, to be attending to this feature of Christmas shopping.”  The Beattie-Oatway store also recommended early buying and useful gifts.  “We have endeavoured,” proclaims the store’s ad on December 10, “to pick out gifts this season that will not only make beautiful presents, but also be useful as well.”

What exactly these useful items were can be seen from a list of suggestions published by Mawson Brothers – that’s an earlier version of the same Mawson’s store we still have today, but in 1920 it was a general store.  The Brothers recommended, for ladies and girls, silk waists, silk, cotton, or linen handkerchiefs; and slippers or spats.  For men and boys, it was silk shirts, silk hose, and silk collars; or neck mufflers and fancy arm bands; and boasted “the best ever range of Men’s Silk Ties in Xmas Boxes that has ever come into Creston.”

Now there’s a lesson in proper dressing!  For those not familiar with ninety-year old clothing terms, a ladies’ “waist” is a blouse, “spats” are coverings worn over stockings and shoes, and men’s “hose” are socks (Mawsons also sold the garters needed to hold the socks up).  Collars were a separate item that buttoned onto the shirt, and a “neck muffler” is a scarf.  Arm bands went around a man’s sleeve, near his elbow, to keep the cuffs pulled up a bit – very handy, in the days before automatic washing machines and Tide-to-go, for keeping one’s white shirt cuffs out of one’s ink or soup.

On December 17, Mawsons announced that they had “just unpacked 250 Columbia and Gennett Records” featuring all the latest hits – waltzes, foxtrots, and band music – and could sell you the phonograph to go with them.  Translate that into an MP3 player and whichever songs are topping the Billboard charts this year, and you’ll see that some Christmas gift ideas really haven’t changed all that much.

One of the hottest trends in Christmas shopping today is charitable giving – adopt a child, adopt a polar bear, adopt a rainforest.  It’s the perfect antidote to a season that many feel has become far too commercial – but it’s not exactly a new idea.  On December 10, the Review announced, “the scholars of the Methodist Sunday school will not have their usual Christmas tree this year.  Instead, the children will give the money that would be thus expended to the Central Europe Famine Fund, and are pledged to raise not less than $10 a month for the next three months for the same deserving cause.”  The children did, however, have a New Year’s Eve sleigh ride as a Christmas season treat.

How many times have you been involved in planning a meeting or event, and heard someone say, “We can’t have it then – that’s too close to Christmas”?  In 1920, the Christmas season was very much business as usual.  The newspaper announced several meetings of community organisations during the week before and after Christmas, including two annual meetings; the Wynndel Athletic Club was organised at a meeting on December 22 and held its second meeting on the 27th. The brand-new Creston Public Library, which opened on December 18, did close for Christmas day, but the Wynndel post office made only one concession to the season: it would only be open for one hour on Saturday, December 25.  The Grand Theatre [now thePharmasave building], which had opened its doors on December 11, showed a Zane Grey film on Christmas night.

Grand Theatre, on the corner of Canyon Street and 11th Avenue North

At first, it might seem strange that there were no ads for Christmas groceries until December 17.  Even supplies for baked goods weren’t advertised until then; Butterfield’s Store in Wynndel didn’t advertise baking supplies until December 24!  Today, many people do their Christmas baking as much in advance as possible – my mother does hers as early as October, and then freezes it all.  But in 1920, most houses would only have had a pantry, a cellar, and/or an icebox, so most of the baking would have to be done in the week before Christmas.  At Butterfield’s on December 24th, you could buy bulk lemon peel for seventy cents a pound, and oranges for $1.15 a dozen.  The Speers store had table raisins, dromedary dates, and “a complete line of Heinz pickles.”  And the Creston Review confidently predicted that Bert Yerbury’s twenty-eight turkeys would feature in Christmas dinners in several Lister homes.

Amonst the Christmas ads and announcements, the lingering shadow of the First World War can be seen.The famine fund, to which the Methodist children were contributing, was a response to the devastation caused by the war.  The emphasis on “useful” gifts may be a hold-over from war-time rationing.  Beattie-Oatway announced that “prices are lower than last year’s, and the assortment is more complete,” which indicates that the economy had not yet returned to its pre-war stability.  The variety of items the store offered though, especially in toys, hints at the boom of the roaring twenties just around the corner:  erector sets and electrical sets; dolls and teddy bears; mechanical toys of all descriptions; celluloid dolls and animals; trains, iron toys, [doll] furniture and “others too numerous to mention.”  And one feature of all these toys, that the modern parent could certainly appreciate on Christmas morning: no batteries required.