The Times West Virginian

Community News Network

November 7, 2013

The myth that Christmas season starts earlier every year

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's the kind of jump-the-gun October ad that brings the same excuse, year after year: "This may SEEM a little premature to you - but it really is NOT . . . " Ah, yes: It's once again the time of year when retail giants begin their insistent reminders that there are "not many days left in which to do your Christmas buying."

But here's the catch: This ad ran in 1912.

The gripe about Christmas coming "earlier every year" is a hardy media perennial across decades and borders, as British complaints in 1954 and American ones in 1968 about September Santas attest. But the practice of pushing early shopping is much older - older, even, than that 1912 ad - and the blame goes to everyone from retailers to rabble-rousers to the U.S. government.

Like so many of our retailing habits, early shopping dates back to the late Victorians. Along with inventing cash registers, mail-order catalogs, and escalator-filled flagship stores, the Victorians also discovered the value of starting the Yuletide shopping season before Thanksgiving. A Nov. 19, 1885, ad by South Carolina retailer Wilhite & Wilhite already shows the familiar combination of apology and all-caps hucksterism: "KEEP IT IN MIND! It is needless to remind you that CHRISTMAS IS COMING, But we want everybody who intends purchasing CHRISTMAS PRESENTS to comprehend that we are now all ready . . ."

It was only a short leap from ad copy to in-store blowouts. A Nov. 16, 1888, event by the Kansas City, Mo., emporium Bullene, Moore, Emery & Company saw a preholiday rush that "packed every square foot of the store," while promotions for an 1893 "Early Christmas Event" by one Salt Lake City retailer almost reads like a ransom note: "This is no joke. We mean it. We will do it . . . MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY."

Inevitably, complaints followed. The problem, then as now, was not the idea of shopping before Thanksgiving - that barrier had already toppled - but the more heated question of pushing past another holiday and into the precincts of Halloween. Sioux City, Iowa, merchants were berated in 1901 for revving up Christmas sales in mid-October, and that same season saw the Philadelphia Inquirer sighing the annual complaint that "Gift buying has begun in earnest - seems to get earlier every year."

Early shopping might have faded into history like other Gilded Age excesses were it not for the arrival of an utterly counterintuitive player into our story: progressive titan Florence Kelley. Better known today as a co-founder of the NAACP - and for teaming up with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to start the Intercollegiate Socialist Society - Kelley also has a special place under the historian's Christmas tree. Her widely distributed 1903 essay, "The Travesty of Christmas," was not, as you might expect from a socialist suffragette, an attack on early shopping - it was in support of it.

The December rush on stores, Kelley explained, brought "a bitter inversion of the order of holiday cheer" for overwhelmed clerks and delivery boys. Early shopping was part of Kelley's crusades for child labor laws and an eight-hour workday, because the last few weeks before Christmas were exactly when overtime and seasonal child labor were most abused. The employment of messenger and delivery boys especially appalled her, as these were the "many children for whom the cruel exposure attending their holiday work is followed by nervous prostration, or pneumonia, too often ending in tuberculosis."

Kelley's mass movement, the National Consumers League, turned their "Shop Early Campaign" into a progressive juggernaut over the next decade: Tens of thousands of posters were distributed in cities each year to halt "the inhuman nature of the eleventh-hour rush" on sales clerks. Cities were annually plastered with "Do Your Christmas Shopping Early" signs - "they are everywhere," a wire service reported from New York City in 1913.

Savvy merchants were quick to adopt the Shop Early Campaign, which made for strange bedfellows: Shop Early was promoted by retail clerk unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alike. And as ever, a few retailers were ready to push beyond even these new boundaries of good taste. One 1914 Hoosier Cabinet ad coyly appealed to American wives: "Just Wink your Christmas eye at Mr. Husband and say 'Hoosier.' " The ad ran in August.

The transformation of the early shopping movement was complete by 1918, when the Council of National Defense backed early buying to ease transport and labor shortages - and ran jaw-dropping ads of Santa Claus in a doughboy uniform, urging Americans to "Take the Crush out of Your Christmas Shopping and Put It Into Winning the War."

Retailers' fondness for early shopping meant that these efforts were kept up after the war, too. One Albuquerque, N.M., retailer in 1920 demanded, with unanswerable logic, "If Christmas Came Tomorrow, Would You Be Ready?" Americans were: Shop Early drives roared through the 1920s and 1930s, and the Washington Times even held prize contests for schoolchildren to write 100-word essays on "Why Everybody Should Do Their Christmas Shopping Early." The notion continued making wartime surges, with the postmaster general urging Americans in August 1943 to shop "really early, indeed right now" - a situation revisited in the Vietnam War.

By then, early Christmas shopping had fermented into the potent historical brew of idealism, patriotism and sheer retail gluttony that we know today. Uneasiness over November shopping and outright ire over September and October sales are now some of America's oldest Yuletide traditions. Like the annual unwrapping of a fruitcake or an ugly sweater, the idea that Christmas "comes earlier every year" is entirely predictable, bound by tradition - and yet somehow always surprising to us.

              

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

  • wd saturday tobias .jpg Stranger’s generosity stuns Ohio veteran

    Vietnam War veteran David A. Tobias was overwhelmed recently when a fellow customer at an OfficeMax store near Ashtabula, Ohio paid for a computer he was purchasing.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.33.11 PM.png VIDEO: High-dive accident caught on tape

    A woman at a water park in Idaho leaped off a 22-foot high dive platform, then tried to pull herself back up with frightening results. Fortunately, she escaped with only a cut to her finger.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • CATS-DOGS281.jpg Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.-and all over the world

    We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • How spy agencies keep their 'toys' from law enforcement

    A little over a decade ago, federal prosecutors used keystroke logging software to steal the encryption password of an alleged New Jersey mobster, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., so they could get evidence from his computer to be used at his trial.

    July 25, 2014

  • Russia's war on McDonald's takes aim at the Filet-o-Fish

    Russia said earlier this week that it had no intention of answering Western sanctions by making it harder for Western companies to conduct business in Russia.
    But all bets are off, apparently, when you threaten the Russian waistline.

    July 25, 2014

  • cleaning supplies Don't judge mothers with messy homes

    I was building shelves in my garage when a neighbor girl, one of my 4-year-old daughter's friends, approached me and said, "I just saw in your house. It's pretty dirty. Norah's mommy needs to clean more."

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Featured Ads