Holiday shopping has always been popular. But thanks to the ample opportunities for online shopping, free shipping, early Black Friday deals, and stores opening on Thanksgiving, it’s fairly easy to spot the ways shopping has changed throughout the twenty-first century.
With the COVID-19 pandemic enacting many changes, it’s fair to assume that holiday shopping is going to be a little different this year: Amazon shifted their annual Prime Days from the summer to the fall, Target and Walmart announced store closings on Thanksgiving Day, and many small businesses will continue to rely on curb-side pick-up and online ordering this holiday season.
These seemingly drastic changes got me wondering: how has holiday shopping changed over the decades, particularly in Maryland?
Examining articles and advertisements on Chronicling America proved to be a pretty useful way to start finding some answers. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the top holiday gifts were not always the hottest toy on the market. Instead, many stores advertised “practical” or “useful” gifts, ranging anywhere from clothes and shoes to kitchen appliances to books. More extravagant gifts included furniture, jewelry, and holiday meats and candy.
By the 1910s, electricity was becoming more common in households; as a result, newspapers started advertising more gifts that required electricity. Funny enough, I came across an ad from a December 1920 issue of The Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette that specifically advertised “The Gift of Electricity” for the holiday season. The Annapolis furniture store that ran this ad seemed to be gearing customers to household appliances instead of the traditional couches and dining sets they tended to advertise in the past. This particular ad spun these gifts as “the gift that keeps on giving” in terms of investing in them! Some of the electric items this store advertised were lamps, heaters, washing machines, toasters, and vacuums.
With electricity, you would think that children would be more interested in receiving electric toys. That may not actually be the case. In addition to ads for gifts, several newspapers printed letters to Santa. In many of these letters, children asked for the more “practical” gifts, as well as dolls, slippers, sleds, and ice skates. Some of the few gifts that children asked for that required electricity included “a train of cars that will run on a track” and “a moving picture machine.”
Obviously, online shopping and the Internet did not exist during the first half of the twentieth century. So, where did people buy all of their gifts? Although some large department stores existed in the early 20th century, many advertisements were for locally-owned, specialized stores, such as drug stores, hardware stores, and jewelry stores. In other words, there weren’t too many stores available for one-stop-shopping! What makes these locally-owned stories even more unique are their style of advertising: some stores had their own block of text to solely advertise their merchandise, while others, like this 1898 Holiday Supplement of the Frostburg Mining Journal, seemed to take part in community advertising.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that not all gifts were store-bought; many were actually homemade! From clothing to candies and cookies to toys, homemade gifts were very common to receive, especially around the time of rations during World War I and World War II. This just goes to show that holiday gifts don’t have to be expensive; it’s the thought that counts!
Hopefully you feel inspired to scope for some holiday deals. Good luck with your holiday shopping this year!
This post is part of a monthly guest blog post series featuring the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and Chronicling America. The Historic Maryland Newspapers Project at University of Maryland Libraries is the Maryland state awardee of the National Digital Newspaper Program. National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress developed this program for state partners to digitize historic newspapers from across the country and make them freely accessible in the Chronicling America newspaper database.
Sarah McKenna is a student assistant for the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies. Additionally, McKenna is a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.