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How the first postwar Christmas of 1919 was celebrated

by David Goss

Though the First World War ended officially on November 11, 1918, most of those overseas did not reach Canadian soil in time to celebrate Christmas of that year.

To complicate matters, even those who did arrive home had to deal with the Spanish influenza epidemic, which was far from over in December 1918.

Thus, Christmas a century ago was the first peacetime celebration following five years of war-affected Christmases.

The details of that season’s events are readily discernable in reading archival copies of the newspapers published at the time when the daily press was still the principal means of communication and spread of ideas.

Reading them, one gains a good idea of what was important to the celebration and can readily compare the experience then with what is the norm today.

We now think of Christmas as being very commercial in nature, but it would be a mistake to think that was not the case a century ago too. In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company was marking its 250th birthday, and was taking full advantage of this milestone to “look back with wonder and pride” on their “remarkable achievements,” and promised to continue their efforts to “advance the development and progress of this wonderful land.”

Their advertising in December always featured a range of gift suggestions for Santa’s delivery for every member of the family and for co-workers, bosses, the children’s teacher, the family doctor and clergyman. Though in black and white, the Christmas advertisements were always seasonally decorated and in a high artistic style.

The chief rival of Hudson’s Bay at the time was the T. Eaton Company, who were taking advantage of their “Golden Jubilee Year” in their promotions.

At least five Maritime concerns depended on these firms for distribution of their manufactured goods across the county. These were Ganong’s Chocolates of St. Stephen, T.S. Simms and Co. Ltd. Brushes and Brooms of Saint John, Stanfield’s Underwear of Truro, Starr Skates of Dartmouth, and Hartt Boot and Shoe Company Ltd. of Fredericton. The products of all but the last two are still sold nationally and could appear under the tree from coast to coast to this day.

Although neither Eaton’s nor Hudson’s Bay had storefronts in the Atlantic area in 1919, (they came in the 20s) the merchants who did offer Christmas goods took their cue from the larger concerns and gave careful attention to their promotions both in range of goods offered, and in illustrations to catch the eye of the consumer.

Among the firms with particularly striking advertising were Holman’s of Summerside on Prince Edward Island, Manchester Robertson Allison in Saint John and Sumner Company in Moncton in New Brunswick, N.H. Phinney of Halifax, (“49 years of fair dealing” was their motto) and the Royal Stores in St. John’s, Newfoundland. None of these locally-owned and operated firms is in business today, as national chains doing similar business are the norm.

One of the most frequently advertised items of 1919 were electrical gifts that would have been new to most consumers of the time, as the country was slowly being electrified. These potential presents were described as “practical electrical items” which, although novel then, are taken for granted today. Typical examples of the promotions of 1919 would be “Nothing is more useful than an electric gift,” which was the slogan of Emerson and Fisher Ltd. of Saint John. The Rogers Hardware Company of Charlottetown stated, “An electrical present is a beautiful thing.” Both companies sold electric toasters, irons, percolators, grills, vacuum cleaners, and table lamps.

Prince Edward Island’s Maritime Electric Co. specialized in the “Time Saver Electric Washer”, saying, “ It extends the good cheer of Christmas to every wash day of the year,” adding a gender stereotype for emphasis: “No other present can make wife or mother as happy.”

The electric item most promoted a century ago was the phonograph. One example in the St. John’s Evening Telegram of December 20, 1919 is typical of the many promos that appeared across the country, and varied from others only in the name of the firms selling the goods. In this example, the Fred V. Chesman Company stated: “The True Spirit of Christmas lies in the New Edison,” which they went on to describe as “the phonograph with a soul.” In Halifax, the Nova Scotia Furnishing Co. Ltd said its Pathephone model was “The Gift of Perpetual Joy.” Both companies had well-illustrated copy with lots of detail about their product, and what they considered outstanding advantages over competitors.

Although popular, these devices were not cheap. Prices varied from $12 to $600 or, in today’s dollars, from about $183 to $9,135.

The most expensive item for any household to consider was a new automobile, which would have cost about the same as the most expensive phonograph. Many auto brands were on the market, and most dressed up their advertising with tried and true Christmas symbolism to point out how delighted the family would be to have a new car in the driveway to take them on seasonal excursions.

According to Dominion Government Statistics for 1919, 4,310 vehicles were sold in the three Maritime provinces then in Confederation. Although there is no breakdown of how many of these were sold at Christmas, the innovative seasonal advertising must certainly have planted the seed in a good many households looking for “A Gift of Year Long Pleasure,” which was how the Saint John firm of J.A. Pugsley advertised the Overland 4-door sedan available at their Rothesay Avenue dealership.

Santa was the focus of illustration in the promotions of phonographs and  autos, and for almost every other commodity available. One that would be jarring today was a full-faced cigar-smoking image of Santa used by Charles Baillie of Saint John with the notation that, “All the comforts of Christmas are not complete without the after-dinner smoke for the men.”

By 1919, although Santa was always in black and white, his form had pretty much become standardized, and has not changed, (except for the addition of colour) to this day. However, it is obvious that his public appearances were still rare enough that, day after day, newspapers would cover the event where he appeared.  Comments like, “Santa’s first visit [of] 1919… staged at Community house,” as carried in the Halifax Herald of December 23 a century ago, were typical of those in all area papers.

The newspapers of the era almost all published what they called (after the English tradition) “Christmas Numbers” from which much information can be gleaned about Christmas 1919. Most devoted their front page to a well-executed seasonal illustration, and in those consulted for this piece, Santa was the favoured image.

Moncton’s Transcript had Santa checking on two little girls sleeping and described the occasion as “Childhood’s Happiest Visitation.” The Amherst Daily News showed Santa surrounded by girls at play with dolls, sleds, drums and on skates and wished its readers a “Merry Christmas,” which was the most common greeting in an era before political correctness was in vogue. This greeting was also chosen for the 1919 Christmas Number of the Charlottetown Guardian.

Inside all these papers, and the many others published, column after column held rich detail about seasonal activity in the churches and schools, among the poor at institutions like orphanages, old folks homes, and hospitals. There were also detailed descriptions of occasions where elaborate gifts were presented to bosses and business owners. At the time, this was almost obligatory to show respect and appreciation, but it is not something that is widely practiced currently (and it would not likely make the daily paper).

In addition, most “Christmas Numbers” had well-crafted fiction, some by known writers, like England’s Charles Dickens or Canada’s Lucy Maud Montgomery, and many others whose names are still known and widely regarded. In addition there were stories that were by local writers, though usually not named, the fact they were native to the area can be seen in their use of recognizable businesses, churches, or parks, in their obviously homespun tales.

The holidays of 1919 being the first Christmas when all the military men were back home, there were many references to that fact, and of events planned for the heroes of the conflict.

Typical was that in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, which began, “Greetings, and my hearty good wishes for a jolly Merry Xmas, for some, the first time at home in five long years.” The Saint John Globe stated it would be a “Happy Christmas for the soldiers,” adding, it would “probably be one of the happiest ever experienced in Canada.” The Halifax Herald report of the “True Spirit of Christmas in Dartmouth,” is typical of many accounts given of the benevolent activity staged for the returned soldiers, especially those still recovering from injury. It stated: “The convalescent soldiers at the Nova Scotia Hospital were not forgotten … and were visited … and distributed to each soldier (was) an ample supply of smokes.”

On Prince Edward Island, the Charlottetown Guardian gave a full front-page report on a “Soldier’s Memorial unveiled at the Methodist and St James’ Churches,” for those who had served from those congregations. To further honour island residents who had been in the conflict, the paper published an almost two full page listing of all who had served titled the “Prince Edward Island Honour Roll.”

As December 25 approached, editorial writers in many of the papers began their daily opinion page column under the headline of “Peace,” or “Peaceful Christmas,” or some combination of words that conveyed a similar sentiment. Their aim seems to have been to show that the season was being appreciated as one free of the conflict of the past five years. The anonymous writer in the Charlottetown Guardian may have stated it best in writing: “To our readers one and all, to those whose homes have been saddened, to those made glad by reunion, we wish a joyous and happy Christmas.”

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