Vintage Holiday Ads & the Evolution of Christmas Shopping

‘Tis the season – for lots of holiday advertisements. The weekend papers were full of the typical advertising found at the beginning of the holiday season.

Exactly how long have holiday shopping ads been around? Well, that depends on what kind of ads we are talking about. My Nana used to rue the day that Christmas cards were invented – she probably mailed out about 75 cards a year, which meant that I wrote the notes and addressed the envelopes for them from the time I was about 10 years old.

The first Christmas card was printed in 1843 by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in England and started the tradition that Nana hated so much.

That got me thinking about how Christmas then evolved from a religious holiday to the secular Santa Claus celebration and the (expensive) piles of gifts that it has become.

Advertising, I think, has a lot to do with this practice. I think vintage advertisements are a lot of fun to read. A visit to Chronicling America was worth the time I spent searching through various historical newspapers. For advertising that was a bit more modern in scope, I then checked out a few Sears catalogs, which are found on Ancestry.

While I can’t claim to have read every issue of every newspaper on Chronicling America, I did look at a variety of newspapers in a variety of U.S. states. Until the end of the Civil War, mentions of Christmas in newspapers tended to be either fictional Christmas stories and local tales or religious-themed articles often written by church ministers.

In fact, even in the 1870s and early 1880s, the “shopping” ads that appeared were quite limited.

Although toys are generically mentioned, other Christmas products included foods and cutlery, which were of the practical nature vs. luxury items.

By the 1880s, Christmas ads were much more prominent.

Christmas 1883 in Belfast, Maine brought an ad that mentions gifts for the Christmas tree in the two-line limerick near the bottom:

‘Twill cost you nuaght (sic) to come and see
What I have for the Christmas Tree.

I found my first ad for those Christmas cards that Nana disliked so much in the Southern Standard (Tennessee) in 1884.

Merchants were expanding their product lines for holiday shoppers. Note that under the Candies, Fruits, etc. in bold font is “An Elegant Line of Christmas and New Year Cards and Illuminated Poems.”

What are illuminated poems?  They are texts which have decoration added to create initials, borders and illustrations. The Getty Museum has illuminated manuscripts in its collection.

As the Victorian Age was drawing to a close at the end of the 19th century, people had a bit of leisure time and a few extra cents in their pockets, evident by the explosion of Christmas ads and the types of gifts that could be purchased.

Porterfield’s offered an array of Christmas gifts in Silver City, New Mexico in 1904. Some of the gifts to be had were very practical in nature, like the shaving sets and gloves. However, most of the list consisted of every kind of toy for children – dolls, musical instruments, dishes and stoves, watches, guns and toy trains and engines.

The 1890s definitely was a turning point for families and their gift giving habits. It also seems to be the start of offering freebies with purchases. An 1895 Los Angeles Herald ad was a full page taken out by Jacoby Brothers that said shoppers would receive a free turkey with a $40.00 purchase. I doubt the store gave out many turkeys, though, because $40 in 1895 is equivalent to about $1200 today!

MacDougall & Southwick Company in Seattle enticed shoppers to write for their 1904 Christmas catalog, which include sterling silver items.

More Christmas card ads, along with temptations of dolls and are found in the 1904 Coconino (Arizona) Sun:

The Lake County (Indiana) Times in 1910 included ads offering free cut glass and china with purchases:

Also in 1910, I found the first mention of shopping procrastinators!

And to relieve as much as possible the congestion usually brought on by people putting off their Christmas Shopping until the last few days, we have decided to put into operation at once our annual Plan. . .

I chuckled at the Christmas cartoon in the 1904 Salt Lake Tribune:

With that, what I’d call the middle age of Christmas advertising came to a close with start of World War I.

Next week, I’ll share a peek into the modern age of Christmas ads.





Friday’s Family History Finds

The best Family History Finds this week:

Family Stories

Finding 1838-1859 Italian Records for My Grandsons’ Ancestors by Randy Seaver on Genea-Musings

A Bluer Shade of Gray by J.L. Starkey on Baugh, Bass, and Beyond

Treasured Heirlooms: Slatter Family by Marian G. Wood on Climbing My Family Tree

Caroline Decker: Conspiracy to Commit Syndicalism by Gwen Kubberness on Criminal Genealogy

Danny Wilson: Thanksgiving 1944 and a Stone Shack by Joy on Joy Neal Kidney

I Always Love to Meet Cousins on Family History Hound

Research Resources

Tuesday’s Tip: Use the Find A Grave Website to Find Burial Records by Randy Seaver on Genea-Musings

Quick Tip – Use Geneal-IX to Find Dutch Records by Yvette Hoitink on Dutch Genealogy

Tech News

RootsMagic 8 News – To Be Released in 2020? by Randy Seaver on Genea-Musings

Genetic Genealogy

DNA Connections and Discoveries – A New 2nd Cousin Leads to More Information on My Mom’s Family Line by Diane Gould Hall on Michigan Family Trails


Dealing with Document Disappointments – My Duers Do It Again! on Genealogy at Heart

Timeline of a Colonial-Era Death on Family Sleuther

My Children’s Boring Ancestors by Michael John Neill on Rootdig

Joseph Cushing’s Brick Wall, Part Two by Nancy on Nancy H. Vest, Writer

The Missing (Now Found) Death of Shimon Tolchinsky by Lara Diamond on Lara’s Jewnealogy

Finding the Dates Outside the Dash by Marian B. Wood on Climbing My Family Tree

5 Steps to Take When Your Ancestor’s Name is Unreadable by DiAnn Iamarino on Fortify Your Family Tree

Getting Organized: The Digital Side by Cari Taplin on Genealogy Pants

Education Is for Everyone

I love this idea and it’s going to be my next project!
My Signature Collection by Laura Mattingly on The Old Trunk in the Attic

Podcast: Uncovering Loyalist Stories by Gail Dever on Genealogy à la Carte

Freedom Began with Jenny Slew, A History of the Beginning of the End of Legal Slavery in America: Part Three by James Tanner on Genealogy’s Star

Keeping Up with the Times

How Does Your Ancestry Color Your Holiday Table? by DiAnn Iamarino on Fortify Your Family Tree

Mining New Records for Research Opportunities and Gratitude for FamilySearch Indexers by Diana Elder on Family Locket

The Great Thanksgiving Listen 2019 by Janice Sellers on Ancestral Discoveries

Happy Thanksgiving 2019

Presidential turkeys live the good life. Each year, the President of the United States pardons one turkey from becoming dinner on Thanksgiving Day. However, this pardon is a much more recent development than one might think!

The origin of this tradition is uncertain, but it is thought to have begun with clemency given to a turkey by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

By the 1870s, a turkey farmer, Henry Vose of Rhode Island became the first to send yearly turkeys to the White House, followed in later years by similar gifts from farmers around the country and even children.

A presidential pardon didn’t become a yearly event, though, for a long time. It actually wasn’t until 1981 when Ronald Reagan sent a turkey off to a turkey farm that the “pardon” was turned into national news.

George H.W. Bush, in 1989, stated “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy — he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

Thanksgiving turkey info and more about the history of the White House can be found at The White House Historical Association.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day making lots of new family history memories.