by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The commercialization of Christmas was a gradual process and it hit its stride in the first decades of the 20th century with examples like the highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post: a letter and coloring sheet sent to a boy, Gordon Baker, from Santa Claus at his Los Angeles office at Bullock’s department store.
The letter, postmarked on 21 December 1922, is signed from “Bullock’s Santa Claus” from the “Office of Santa Claus / Bullock’s / Los Angeles,” which would obviously seem to indicate that the young recipient, who lived in the Highland Park area of the city, was to understand that the one, true Santa Claus was affiliated with the store.
Addressed to “Dear little friend,” the missive acknowledges receiving a letter from Gordon along with “several other interesting ones” and that this got old Santa thinking how fortunate he was “to have such delightful boys and girls on his Christmas list.” He went on to confide that he received some “curious requests,” but would do this best and had but one request.
This was to go to bed early on Christmas Eve and to stay asleep until morning, at which time “won’t you be surprised?” Passing on his regrets that he couldn’t be there to see just how amazed Gordon would be, Santa closed his letter, but added a postscript.
Namely, if the youngster was to bring in the letter with the sketches of Santa and his sleigh and of St. Nick filling stockings on a fireplace mantel colored “carefully” within two days, on the 23rd, he’d receive “one of the tiny packages which I have for Bullock’s special friends.” And, who knew, but maybe Mrs. Baker, if not already, would become a regular Bullock’s customer thanks to a promotion like this!
Obviously, however, Gordon Baker not only did not color in his Santa letter and take it to the store, situated at the northwest corner of Broadway and Seventh, in the heart of the Los Angeles shopping district, but he kept it and the letter managed to survive the ravages of time and wind up in the museum’s collection about a decade ago.
As to the store, its founder was John Gillespie Bullock, who was born to laborer Joseph Bullock and Margaret Gillespie in January 1871 in Paris, Ontario, Canada, west of Toronto and not far from Buffalo, New York. His father died when he was young and his mother raised the family in the same general area, where John began his working life as a grocery store clerk.
In 1896, Bullock crossed by train into Michigan and migrated soon to Los Angeles where he went to work for The Broadway, a dominant department store run by Arthur Letts. Bullock became a protege very quickly of Letts, who then bought a failing store in the city and set Bullock up in his namesake department store in 1907. With the city growing dramatically, there was plenty of room for department stores, including Robinson’s, Hamburger’s (later the May Company) and others.
Letts died in 1923, several months after this letter was sent, and Bullock and a partner bought the Bullock’s building and went independent. In 1928, a ten-story addition to the original store was added at Hill and 7th streets. This was followed the next year by an ambitious project was launched out on the booming Wilshire Boulevard corridor with the opening of Bullock’s Wilshire, a striking Art Deco landmark with distinctive green copper detailing, and the store specialized in more luxurious goods than its older sister downtown. For nearly a quarter century, the building has been the home of Southwestern Law School.
Bullock, who was married twice and had two daughters and some step-children, lived in the Hancock Park neighborhood and died just a few years after the opening of his Wilshire store, passing away at the age of 62 yars in 1933. He was buried in the family’s “room” in the mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Bullock’s remained a popular and successful chain for decades opening stores throughout southern California, as well as in the northern part of the state and in the Phoenix area, through 1980. With the dramatic changes in the retail industry that developed by then, however, Bullock’s became part of the Macy’s empire of stores and the name disappeared after Federated Stores took over Macy’s and the old Bullock’s locations (well, the ones that survived) took that name.