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.





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