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Christmases of earlier times

On Monday, December 27th 1897, the Johnstown Daily Republican ran a post-Christmas article, “Christmas in Johnstown.” The editor observed, “It was a regular old-fashioned Christmas Day in Johnstown, not a green Christmas, as was gloomily anticipated until Tuesday’s welcome blizzard came, but a joyous yule tide with sharp, bracing air, several inches of new fallen snow, and good sleighing enjoyed by all who had a horse or the price of one’s hire. It was a quiet Christmas, save for morning church services, unmarked by other public observances, save for respite from labor. The majority seemed to remain quietly at home. It was a day of happy family reunions, of Christmas trees and delighted youngsters, and the cold, frosty air vibrated all day with merry sounds of many sleigh bells, with Christmas greetings between pedestrians trudging along in the creaking snow, with smiles and happiness of good will toward their fellow men. It was a perfectly ideal Christmas Day, and everyone enjoyed it hugely.”

Pristine as this sounds, this Christmas of 1897 was just as replete with commercialism as today. Enticing advertisements from Johnstown and Gloversville merchants filled the Republican’s back pages, with even a few from far off Amsterdam. During those important last shopping days before Christmas, for example, Johnstown merchant Abram Harrison published advertisements proclaiming, “Presents for All! Big Assortment! Economical Prices!” He claimed to provide the buying public with, “more extensive than ever offerings,” and that his “toy and novelty departments grow more interesting each successive day.” Harrison also promised patrons, “the choicest selections of everything to please yourself, to make your husband or wife happy, plus many delights for children and apparel for baby.”

Finally, Harrison pompously declared, “To price the goods is a pleasure, to possess them, is a privilege.” No doubt he wanted as many buyers as possible to experience that ‘privilege’.

On the 27th, however, it was a different story, as merchants strove to rid themselves of leftovers. Dry goods dealers Potter & Gilmore, courting post-holiday bargain shoppers, reminded patrons, “Sensible goods still available include blankets, rugs, shawls, lady’s night gowns, dress goods, and union suits.” A competitor, Richheimer’s, was more blatant, simply declaring, “All Christmas Goods Available at Cost.”

Moving ahead to Gloversville in 1914, the Morning Herald’s Christmas issue announced, “All Hail This Glad Christmas Day.” Attempting to paint Gloversville as the perfect American society, the editor wrote, “Christmas arrived this year on the wings of a snow storm, making an ever desirable ‘White Christmas’ in Gloversville. In every home in the city, the day will be one of gladness, for it is doubtful if anyone has been overlooked in the efforts to make at least Christmas Day the one day on which all will be happy. The break of day will see children scramble from their beds and rush to the Christmas tree and to the fireplace, where their stockings hung, to see what Santa Claus left them on his midnight visit. None will be disappointed, for Santa has been told where every child in the city lives, and all will find some token of his remembrance.” All? This idyllic picture of a perfect city-wide Christmas day with no child left behind may have pleased readers who could afford gifts and a subscription to the Morning Herald, but the editor’s idyllic description of a perfect Christmas ignored the reality of poorer homes within the city where the pleasures of Christmas were scant, if even present. Nobody wanted to think about that, nor about the annoying war unfolding in Europe. The editor’s concluding observation, however, rings as true today as in those early months of World War I, when he remarked, “Many of us with friends living in the war stricken countries will give all the more fervent praise for the blessings of peace which surround our homes today.”

Acknowledging the commercial aspect of Christmas, the Herald’s editor also remarked, “Last night the shops stayed open until a late hour and were crowded with late shoppers. Clerks were kept busy until midnight so that none should be disappointed. Parcel post clerks were overburdened with gifts sent to persons in this city.”

Business was equally good for Gloversville’s main mercantile rival Amsterdam during the early teens, partly because merchants in both communities advertised in each other’s newspapers to entice shoppers. The December 14th 1912 Amsterdam Evening Recorder bragged of the heavy Christmas business its merchants were doing, partly courtesy of out-of-town shoppers, not so surprising since by 1912, it was increasingly easy to travel between Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam via local trains or trolleys. “Trains, trolley cars, and vehicles of all sorts coming into Amsterdam from all directions have brought great numbers of shoppers bent on buying their Christmas presents here. In spite of threatening weather, stores all are doing a good business and prospects for a merry Christmas in Amsterdam are especially bright. Local stores are displaying heaps and heaps of toys.”

1912 was now “preeminently a scientific age” the paper declared. “Every store has its display of electric motors furnishing power to miniature electric railroads. Steam and hot air engines also abound, plus automobile fire apparatus for future chiefs, and all sorts of toy aeroplanes. All these wonders make the glimpse of Toyland a delight for even those who long ago passed beyond its magic domain.”

Let’s hope none of us have passed beyond it completely.

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