Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A New York City Christmas in 1905

Christmas decorations entice crowds along 6th Avenue below 14th Street in 1905 -- photo The Ideal Educator (copyright expired)
In comparison to the heaps of gifts and splashy decorations of today, early 19th century Christmases were subdued holidays. Songs by the piano or parlor organ, a special dinner and religious services were the high points of the holiday.  By 1905 the reverent observance of Christmas would be a thing of the past.

In 1898 Ella M. Powers reminisced in Popular Educator magazine, "The week before Christmas in 1851, a woodman of the Catskill mountains in New York filled two ox-sleds with young, shapely evergreen trees, drove over the rough, snow-drifted roads to New York City.  He selected a corner upon the sidewalk and here he displayed his choice Christmas goods from the woodland.  The resinous, aromatic odor attracted the passing crowds and eagerly the people purchased his sylvan bargains.  He returned each year.  This was the beginning of the Christmas sale of evergreens in America."

Still, just prior to the turn of the century only one in five households had a Christmas tree and children’s gifts were few and, for the most part, practical. 

That too, was about to change.

In 1905 the demand for Christmas trees was such that early environmentalists were alarmed that the pine forests would be decimated.  The uproar was enough that Forestry & Irrigation magazine was induced to assure readers "Undoubtedly there are enough young evergreen trees in the north to furnish us indefinitely with Christmas trees if we use them wisely and eke out the supply."  The magazine called those concerned about the forests "sentimentalists."

Christmas trees, only recently a novelty in New York City homes, piled high at the Barclay Street freight yard in 1905 -- photo The Ideal Home Educator (copyright expired)
A writer for The Ideal Home Educator paused in 1905 to reflect on other drastic changes that were taking place: Christmas was becoming commercial.

“So great was the crowd of shoppers in one rush, last year, at a great New York department store that in one day 475,00 people crowded into its aisles and the doors had to be closed against thousands of others who tried to enter. For ten business days, buyers bore away 40,000 parcels a day and 20,000 more a day were delivered. ..The owners of that store spent $8,000 in decorations and music. To the 3,500 employees were added 1,700 temporary assistants. For several days the store was kept open until ten o’clock at night.”

Sadly, the article noted, “For the protection of shoppers from pickpockets, a score or more of detectives had been hired to serve not only during Christmas week, but for a month before.”

Two women dressed in the height of fashion avoid a mistletoe seller on Christmas Eve -- photo The Ideal Educator (copyright expired)
Boys and girls of the 1870s could expect a stocking filled with paper toys, nuts and hard candies. Because every room in a Victorian house had a coal hod next to the fireplace, a lump of coal for naughty children was a convenient booby prize. It was also easily recycled back into household use.

But things had definitely changed by 1905. “The character of Christmas gifts is fast changing from the flimsy things that once filled the shops to things of permanent value. Even a toy-maker now says ‘My horses must be as nearly as possible, sure-enough horses—with real horsehair, etc.’ Twenty years ago there were four kinds of dolls on the market; now there are 400 kinds. Substantial or practical presents have in great measure taken the place of fragile gimcracks, even in toys.”

In the atrium of New York's most exclusive department store, Simpson-Crawford, a nearly two-story Santa is displayed among over-sized holly -- photo The Ideal Educator (copyright expired)
Over a million immigrants were crowded through Ellis Island that year, filling the tenement buildings of ethnic neighborhoods and bringing their own Yule-time customs.  Although the new-comers did absorb American influences, many in what the author referred to as the "foreign colonies" clung to their native traditions.

The Italians, he wrote, took off at least half a day from work on Christmas Eve. “No meat comes on his table that night, but his supper is a rich one. The two dishes of honor are snails and pickled eels, which are imported in great quantities for the holidays.”

Still, because the Italian children attended public schools, they learned many American customs. In classrooms they learned songs about Santa Clause, Christmas dinner and hanging up stockings. “As a result, Santa Claus and the tree are seen everywhere in the Italian colonies.”

The Germans were less changed, said the author, perhaps because many of the American customs originated in Germany. “The Catholic Santa Claus, with his servant Ruprecht, who punishes bad boys, comes to distribute nuts and candies on December 6th—St. Nicholas’s Day. Christmas is the festival of the Christ Child, and, days before, the house is made clean for His coming.”

In the German households on New York’s Lower East Side, known as Kleindeutschland, Christmas Day was subdued. “The day is, above all, a family one, and it is spent quietly at home. The presents to the children are distributed early in the morning, and usually are characterized by thrift and usefulness. The larger children often have to wait until Christmas to replace outgrown clothes, shoes, and mittens. A gift like a pair of skates is sometimes added, but practical utility is the end kept constantly in view.”

Christmas dinner for the Kleindeutschland residents was splendid. “A goose is likely to be the principal dish for dinner, with pickled white turnips and potato dumplings. A plain cinnamon cake, with ginger-spiced deer and lions, crusted with icing and blue and red sugar, and the little round pfeffernusse, are the festive additions to the board.”

The story was not so bright for the oppressively poor, however. For the low-paid factory workers and peddlers in 1905 there would be no holiday. “A very large number of them give presents to the children, and allow them to hang up their stockings on Christmas Eve,” said the article. “They will not, however, have a tree in their rooms. There are no Christmas dinners; the stores do not close, and the shops work on as usual. For their Santa Claus, the little ones must visit a settlement house or their more fortunate friends.” Yet, despite their poverty, “many poor families spend $8 or $10 for presents.”

Ten dollars in 1905 was just about a week’s wages for unskilled workers.

Two impoverished boys look longingly at the Christmas display windows -- photo The Ideal Educator (copyright expired) 
Christmas in 1905 had come a long way from the Victorian holidays of a a few generations earlier.  And the ambiguous conclusion of The Ideal Home Educator could have been written in 2011: “it has become a gift-giving, good-wish-bearing time of cheer, whose purely religious significance has almost been forgotten.”


  1. Great post Tom, thanks for the research. I think I'm going to add the word "gimcrack" to my vocabulary.

  2. that's all I ever get for Christmas, still. Gimcracks.