What makes Christmas, Christmas? And how has this changed over the years?
Delving into some of the hundred-year-old newspapers we look after, we find some surprising things. Then, as now, newspapers were packed with adverts for food, drink, gifts, clothing, and even furniture which readers were encouraged to purchase for the festive season.
So what was being marketed to our ancestors as the perfect Christmas present? Before the days of music downloads and streaming, one ideal gift being advertised in Essex was a gramophone. Walker’s Music Warehouse in Clacton advertised their gramophones as ‘A most suitable and lasting present for the Festive Season’, and promised the machines would bring ‘to the home absolutely the very best vocalists and instrumentalists procurable’. Prices began at 34s (about £130 in today’s money), and went up to 12 Guineas (about £980 today).
Large department stores offered a huge range of consumer goods, such as those advertised by J.R. Roberts in Stratford in the run up to Christmas 1911. For children, there were books and toys, such as dolls’ houses or toy trams. For ladies there were silk and lace blouses, fur wraps and muffs, handbags and wool and kid gloves. Men seem to have got the raw end of the deal, with only handkerchiefs being mentioned in this particular advert as gifts for men. Customers could order by post, and Roberts offered free delivery to any address within 20 miles of the shop or on orders of over 5 shillings.
If after a trip to Roberts you were still in doubt as to what to get for the lady in your life, J.G. Bond Ltd in Chelmsford had the perfect answer in the shape of ‘Baker’s Celebrated Chelmsford Lavender Water’.
After presents had been chosen, what did shops suggest people might purchase to eat and drink over the festive season? The Clacton Stores on 22 Pier Avenue offered a huge range of luxury food items, from Seager’s Best Sausages, to Stilton and Roquefort, to everything needed to make and decorate a Christmas cake. Also available were crystallised fruit sweets, and ‘Fancy Boxes of Chocolates’. To drink, the Chelmsford Chronicle advertised Glen Spey Whiskey, made from finest barley malt, and Gilbey’s Invalid Port (a ‘Pure Health-giving Wine’).
While adverts abound for luxury, or ‘fancy’, items, there were also plenty of adverts for more practical gifts. 100 years ago, people were getting ready for the first peace time Christmas in five years. While luxury goods were still available, there were more adverts such as the one from Bolingbroke & Sons Ltd in Chelmsford, promoting ‘useful and moderate’ presents, ‘the very thing for this memorable Yule Tide’.