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Christmas in Fulton County one hundred years ago

In 1920, Gloversville merchants did everything they could, including offering free trolley car rides, to keep shoppers buying local. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

One doesn’t have to look back 100 years to remember when absolutely nothing related to Christmas gift-buying appeared in store windows and newspaper advertisements until after Thanksgiving, when there was no special shopping day called Black Friday or even a grey one, when few Fulton County shoppers ventured beyond their local Johnstown, Gloversville, and maybe Amsterdam stores to purchase gifts, and when there were also those three-pound Sears, Roebuck catalogs known as wish books to order from, with wonderful toy sections, the stuff dreams were made of for children of our old times, delivered by what must have been very tired, strong-backed mail carriers.

The first large Morning Herald Christmas shopping advertisement for 1920 came on Dec. 2, when a half-page blast, paid for by a consortium of Gloversville merchants proclaimed, “The Big Christmas buying rush is on! Hundreds of Glove Cities shoppers have caught the big idea of buying at home stores where stocks are above standard. They’re getting the pick of all the fine Christmas lines. The most satisfied Christmas shopper is the early one. BUY NOW, save energy, and enjoy the big happiness on Christmas Day.” A caricature of Saint Nick, beaming enthusiastically as if his favorite football team just made a touchdown, completed the message.

In many ways, 1920’s Christmas wasn’t so different than what 2020’s will be: People shopped, placed gifts under Christmas trees, children woke parents early, rushing down stairs to discover what Santa left, and later on, the family and their covid-free guests ate a gargantuan meal, either at home or over the river and through the woods at Grandmother’s house. Perhaps the greatest differences were that no Christmas toys ran on batteries and there were fewer ways to pay for it all. Credit and debit cards didn’t exist. Christmas clubs allowing people to save gradually during the year were available at all local banks, and some larger merchants like Argersingers and Martin & Naylor sponsored their own holiday savings clubs, the catch being that all the money saved thereby must be spent at those stores.

Some merchant’s advertisements were downright chauvinistic. Witness the persuasive language of the Fulton County Gas & Electric Company’s effort at placing a Hoover vacuum cleaner in every home. Aimed at husbands, with the vailed inference they were the bread-winners and therefore controlled the family income, it appealed to their affection for the happiness of the “little woman” at home. “All year long, “Her” thoughts are on cleaning. There’s hardly a day she doesn’t have to get after dirt somewhere. “You” can eliminate most of “Her” cleaning labor with this essential gift. GIVE HER A HOOVER!” This spiel was of course accompanied by a drawing showing a happy housewife gleefully vacuuming a rug.

Meanwhile, what was happening in the daily news? From the 20th onward, our newspaper readers were greatly concerned with the fate of Lieutenant Walter Hinton and two fellow U.S. Navy balloonists who disappeared somewhere over New York State while engaged in the somewhat hair-brained scientific experiment of determining the natural directions of high-altitude air currents. They could just as well have waited for warmer weather, but they didn’t. None of the three would be home for Christmas.

They discovered to their dismay that those lofty currents took them all the way to northern Canada before dumping them in a snow drift, and so they were lost for almost two weeks before being rescued. Meanwhile, witnesses claiming to have seen them sailing high above Wells caused a large Adirondack mountain search party to be organized that accomplished nothing beyond keeping local readers on edge for several days. Closer to home, Northville farmer Isaac Brownell was killed by his Guernsey bull on the 22, and on the 23 the clothing store of Barney Galinsky & Sons was robbed of a considerable amount of men’s clothing due to leaving their attic trap door unhooked. Police were probably searching for some well-dressed crooks.

If shopping became hectic and shoppers wanted to relieve tension, there were vaudeville acts and movies rather than millions of web sites and digital games. The last two days before Christmas, the Grand showed “Fighting Cressy – A Thrilling Photoplay of Action on the Western Plains” staring Blanche Sweet. The Glove presented “Nearly a Prince” and vaudeville headliner Marion Claire, the Hippodrome showed “Mutiny of the Elsinore” adapted from Jack London’s novel, and the Family offered Ruth Roland in “Ruth of the Rockies, A Photoplay with a Thousand Surprises.”

Nor were groceries exempt from the Christmas advertising game. Virtually every store in Johnstown and Gloversville took space the last several days before Christmas to advertise their rock-bottom prices of turkey, just like today.

Christmas eve services occurred in virtually every church in the county, but there were also secular events such as in Johnstown where “hundreds are expected to take part in the Christmas Tree Festival at the Courthouse” and “the Gloversville Eagles will host a Dancing Party with buffet meal.” Families willing to drive to Canajoharie on Christmas Day might also enjoy Hotel Wagner’s “multi-course, bountiful Christmas dinner, price $1.” That’s not happening this year, is it?

Let’s close this Christmas article by relating the 100-year-old Christmas wish offered on Dec. 24 by Gloversville’s Martin & Naylor Company (“The Store That Gives More”). “May the spirit of Christmas work for you the full degree of its bountifulness.”

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