When we were children, every year at about this time we’d go up into the attic and begin to bring down the Christmas decorations. This was always a good time to do some rummaging through other boxes which invariably brought not only treasures to light but the old newspapers that were used to wrap them. Almost orange in color from the heat of countless summers, reading them was like unlocking a time capsule.
A little over 80 years ago when those newspapers were printed, the United States was in the midst of one of the greatest financial crisis in its history. The Wall Street Crash of October, 1929, ushered in a decade of high unemployment and lost opportunities known as The Great Depression.
Within two years, the income of the average American family fell by 40% and 34 million people found themselves in families with no regular full-time wage earner. In places like Toledo, Ohio, the unemployment rate hit 80%. By 1933, 11,000 of 25,000 U.S. banks had failed and the stock market had lost almost 90% of its value. The economy finally hit bottom during the winter of 1932-33 leaving millions of families facing a very bleak Christmas.
Merchants needed to be creative under such circumstances. These advertisements, from the Chicago Tribune, show how businesses during this time attempted to cope with an economy that had many people wondering where the next meal was coming from, let alone buy Christmas gifts.
The General Market House Company, for example, offered meat and poultry “at prices that are lower than ever this Xmas.” A&P Stores suggested that a case of canned vegetables would be “a very economical gift” that would be appreciated by friends.
Clothes, then as now, were a practical gift. At Charles A. Stevens & Brothers, the silk lingerie was “exceptional” at just $2.95. Another ad confides, helpfully, that “She Wants a Robe this Christmas.” Not too far away, at Henry Lytton and Sons, boys’ lamb jackets, regularly $14.95, were a “Super Christmas Scoop” at just $8.85.
Not only do the advertisements of the time indicate a struggling economy but a nation with a different set of values. The picture in one advertisement shows Santa smiling benevolently down on a young woman who is stoically operating an industrial-looking piece of equipment. What mother would not be thrilled to receive a Thor Table Ironer on Christmas morning?
Amazingly, some things do not change. “The Body Builder” of 1931 looks almost exactly like the one that’s sold on TV today. Sex was being used to sell cigars in 1930, just as it sells countless products today. And finally, people in the Great Depression were borrowing money so that they could provide a Merry Christmas for their families, just as we are today.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Joe Miller, AtticExplorer.com
Thanks to Michael Zajakowski, Picture Editor for the Chicago Tribune, for permission to reprint the Christmas ads from 1929 – 1935.
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