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Victorian Christmas Shopping Boomed

Victorian Christmas shopping boomed through the nineteenth century. With industrialism came mountains of affordable gifts. Improvements in transportation enabled consumers to travel to cities and town centers to buy them. Shiny new department stores with showcase windows made the gifts irresistible. Then Santa Claus got a cuddly makeover and a giant sled to deliver everything on Victorian Christmas shopping lists.

The Top Seven

While holiday gift-giving was nothing new, the volume of consumption was a modern development. Following is the countdown of the top seven  developments that transformed Victorian Christmas shopping.

#7–Gift-Giving Lost Its Dark Past

In the Pulitzer Prize runner up The Battle For Christmas historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that Christmas was not widely celebrated in America during the first two hundred years of settlement. Puritans widely discouraged celebrations. Between 1659 and 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s that Christmas became a legal public holiday in New England.

According to Nissenbaum one reason for the hostility was because the working class celebrated the holiday with: “…public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.”

This behavior was an outgrowth of northern agricultural societies in which December was a natural time for a break from heavy work. Combined with newly fermented beer and freshly slaughtered animals, the winter festival was a natural time to let off steam and to gorge.

The Church placed Christmas Day in late December at least in part as a compromise between pagan and religious rituals.

“Often people blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals or cross-dressed, thus operating under a protective cloak of anonymity.”

“There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

During normal times, workers owed the rich. But during the winter celebration the tables were turned. People marched from house to house, demanding gifts including coins, trinkets and food. Like today’s trick-or-treating, there was an implied threat throughout the year if wealthy employers did not step up.  And treats had to be the highest quality.

#6–Industrialization Tipped The Christmas Scales

The practice of holiday gift giving ultimately transformed during the first half of the 1800s from the carnival-esque atmosphere to a wholesome time for family and friends. According to Nissenbaum, the trend also moved towards placing children first on Victorian Christmas shopping lists. With it, came “fears about what a child-centered Christmas might do to their children’s character.” (Nissenbaum, p. 176)

Early on, people gave modest gifts that were often handmade. Fruits, nuts, sweets and books were on the approved list. Most toys were handmade. More elaborate gifts made by craftsmen were not affordable for the average person.

But with the progress of industrialization, factories pumped out large volumes of items. Products were generally lower quality, but also within reach of the growing middle class. There was also more variety than ever before. Clothing was mass-produced so people could afford to own several of each item. The concept of “disposable” grew along with piles of presents.

#5–Queen Victoria Was A Cheerleader For Christmas Presents

Queen Victoria did much to transform the Christmas holiday. Prince Albert was born in Germany where evergreen trees were traditionally brought into the home and decorated with toys, candles, sweets and fruits. Presents were placed under the tree at Christmas instead of the New Year.

In 1848, the Royal Family was seen gathered around a decorated Christmas tree in an engraving published in the Illustrated London News. Presents were placed beneath the tree or on a table beside it.

#4–Charles Dickens Pitched Christmas Generosity

Charles Dickens was one of the leading yuletide trendsetters, A Christmas Carol recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a heartless miser. In the night, he’s visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

Through Scrooge’s eyes, audiences understand the misery of poverty–and hopefully catch a glimpse of themselves in Scrooge. Terrified by his visions, Scrooge becomes a kinder, more generous person. Dickens leaves us with belief in the possibility of redemption through giving.

#3–Father Christmas Became Santa Claus

Father Christmas and his helpers were alive and well across Europe. But during the revival of the late 1800s Santa received a commercial makeover. Father Christmas and Santa Claus merged. Some people used the two names interchangeably to describe the jolly large man who delivered gifts to children.

In 1823 Clement Clarke Moore published the long Christmas poem he wrote for his daughters. “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” established the Victorian Santa image we know today. Moore described a portly “right jolly old elf” who drove his sleigh filled with gifts for children around the world.

In the1860s political cartoonist Thomas Nast enhanced Moore’s poem to create what became the definitive modern-day Santa. Santa now wore a red suit trimmed in white and he carried a giant sack filled with toys and goodies. Ultimately, he appeared in stores across America to tick off items from Victorian Christmas shopping lists.

#2–Department Stores Became Meccas For Victorian Christmas Shopping

Department stores were arguably the most significant development in the transformation of Victorian Christmas shopping into the consumer event we know today.

According to historian Emily Remus for the Organization of American Historians,

“The masculine downtown began to open to women in the final decades of the nineteenth century as urban retailers and entrepreneurs founded new institutions that depended on female consumption. The most iconic was the department store. Made possible by mass concentrations of capital and new transportation networks, these retail palaces dwarfed the scale and profits of traditional dry goods houses.”

With its opening in 1852 The Bon Marché in Paris became the world’s first official Department Store. Several others were built across Europe.

In the United States, Marshall Field’s opened in Chicago in 1852. Macy’s opened its first dry-goods store in New York in 1858. And of course, the five and dimes like Woolworth’s beckoned to lower budgets.

Not all women, of course, could equally enjoy the expanding realm of urban consumption, Remus writes. Some women were limited by their budgets. And “non-white women faced prejudice that inhibited full participation in commercial life.”  While discrimination was most pronounced in the Jim Crow South, racial minorities sometimes faced  exclusion in Northern cities.

Department stores evolved quickly to attract and keep paying customers. The National Museum of American History writes:

“Marshall Field in Chicago and other retailers built palatial stores. Offering wide selections of goods and services at set prices, they encouraged consumers to spend the day enjoying the pleasures of shopping. These stores employed growing numbers of single women, who also became consumers.”

Managers reorganized department stores, placing high-profit impulse items like cosmetics on the first floor, to tempt women on their way to other items. Areas were set up for child care, for husbands to lounge and for women to rest. Many restaurants still did not allow women to enter without a male escort. The department stores opened tea rooms for their female customers.

By the late 1800s plate glass was widely available. That allowed shop owners to build large windows spanning the full lengths of their shops. Window trimmers designed elaborate displays to entice passersby. In 1897, Frank Baum (author of the The Wizard of Oz) began The Show Window. It was the first journal aimed at the display trade. In 1898, he founded the National Association of Window Trimmers.

One vendor in the 1908 edition of Trade: A Journal For Retail Merchants wrote:

“I have frequently seen men and women too, who were window shopping before my place at night inside the next day. People in New York keep posted on the fashions and on what is to be had in the stores by window shopping.”

#1–Santa Made His Appearance At Department Stores

By the late 1800s, the new and improved Santa was a familiar image in newspapers and magazines. According to New England Living Today, in 1890, dry goods owner, James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts pushed Victorian Christmas Shopping up another notch. He had a suit custom made and the first department store Santa Claus was born.

Christmas consumption was riding an out-of-control sleigh to our modern Christmas.

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