Column: Christmas comes early, just like a century ago

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. 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 catalogues, 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 …"

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.

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 11th-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. 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.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is "The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars."

© 2013 Slate

Column: Christmas comes early, just like a century ago 11/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 5:05pm]

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