The Evolution of Christmas: Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles, 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the mid-1870s, greater Los Angeles was at the peak of its first significant and sustained growth boom, which began several years prior.  As its population rose and economy grew, its commerce reflected the good times, including more choices for residents with their consumer spending.

More generally, Christmas was moving up from a second-tier holiday, far less important, for example, than New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July, and gaining more popularity and prominence among Americans.  What was largely a religious feast day was becoming more and more a secular holiday with gift giving, decorating, balls and parties, and other aspects becoming more established.


One area that reflected both the growth of Los Angeles and that of the commercial prospects of Christmas is through holiday advertisements in local newspapers.  Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are two issues of the Los Angeles Herald newspaper from 22 and 24 December 1874 with a particular focus on advertisements of retailers.

As was the case broadly in America, most retail establishments in smaller cities and towns were usually sole or small-group proprietorships and they were often specialized, though there were general stores.  In Los Angeles, there was the Dollar Store of the Dunsmoor Brothers on Main Street, at which customers could buy a wide range of goods, including clothing, cutlery, glassware, crockery, jewelry, toys “in an endless variety,” furniture, wagons, wheelbarrows, carts, and much more.  An ad noted that 150 cases of “holiday goods” recently arrived for consumers to peruse.


A similar enterprise was Herzog and Roth’s People’s Palace, also on Main Street, and which offered men’s and women’s clothing and dry and fancy goods, though there wasn’t much specificity given as to what was sold beyond those broad terms.  What set the People’s Palace apart, however, was its promotion of “Novel, Attractive and Liberal Christmas Presents” given to customers who spent more than five dollars on a shopping trip to the business.  It was stated that these gifts were of values up to fifty dollars and comprised “Japanese articles” including such “useful as well as ornamental articles” as cabinets, trays, writing desks, dressing cases.

Between the People’s Palace and the Dollar Store was the Cash Store of Harris and Jacoby, which was having a “clearing out sale” in which as much of the inventory as possible had to be sold by the first of the new year “in order to make room for a large asortment of other goods on the way from the East.”  What was considered “Christmas and New Year Goods,” with presents still often being given on New Year’s Day included the “well-assorted stock of toys and fancy goods.”


There were also establishments that specialized largely in jewelry and related goods.  The best known was that of Charles Ducommun, whose temporary store was on Commercial Street and Main Street and who’d been in Los Angeles for about a quarter century.  His ad was headed with the term “Holiday Presents” and among 25,000 items mentioned were diamonds, jewelry, watches, and “a stock of Toys, which will be sold at cost.”

Back on Main Street, near the other establishments noted above, was Charles H. Bush’s “Mammoth Jewelry House” and its line of holiday goods.  A cartoom logo for Elgin watches dominated the ad, but Bush added, “I have just returned from the city [San Francisco, presumably] with a complete stock of fine Watches and Jewelry, suitable for the Holiday trade.”  Mentioned were ladies’ gold watches from $55 and up, sterling silverware, silver-plated ware and knives and spectacles and nose-glasses.  He noted that he had “the best engraver in Los Angeles” and had “a particular desire to repair watches and clocks that all other have failed to make run.”


Fisher and Thatcher were not to be outdone in the eye-catchiness of their ad, showing an elephant-drawn train bringing goods to their store on Main Street close to the others mentioned here.  The duo were distinctive in that they made their own jewelry, watches and optical goods, but they also promoted the recent arrival of holiday goods, including diamonds, watches, jewelry, silverware, spectacles, clocks and silver-plated ware.

Louis Lewin recently acquired the book and music store of Brodrick and Company, situated on Spring Street.  In his holiday advertisement “for Christmas and New Year, the merchant offered the finest assortment of standard poetical and prose works, juvenile and miscellaneous books, plain and musical work boxes” and much more including wallets, stationery, blank books, bibles and prayer books, musical instruments, and “hundreds of other articles, too numerous to mention.”  Lewin, incidentally, became the first to publish a book in Los Angeles when he produced a history of Los Angeles County for the nation’s centennial in 1876.


A.H. Havell, at his establishment on Main and Second streets, quite a bit further south than the other merchants, specialized in the sale of pianos.  So, his Christmas and New Year’s gifts were really for the well-to-do in the City of Angels.  Among his “piano-fortes” listed were New York square grands reduced $100 to $350; Vose pianos from Boston with cases featuring rounded corners and “serpentine plinth moldings” at $300, a savings of $100; two “elegantly carved” Bourne pianos reduced $100 to $400; and three full-size concert square grands from Hallet and Davis and offered at $550, whereas these were sold in San Francisco for $700.  These were substantial sums for the period, but with the booming economy, Havell may have done well selling his pianos, though he did offer Florence sewing machines, too.

Another specialist was L. Goldsmith, who placed his 24 December ad and said “tomorrow being Christmas, I would remind the public, and particularly those fond of a good cigar” that he had an inventory that ranged from boxes of 100 from $2.50 to $22.50 and also offered boxes of 50.  He added, “they serve as a very nice Christmas present to a friend.”


A different kind of advertisement to note was that of Dewey, Kimball and Company, which held nightly auctions at the new United States Hotel, again on Main Street.  The firm offered “Christmas goods for children and men,” though why women were excluded is mystifying.  In any case, among the mentioned items to be auctioned off were toys, window shades, books, song books, pictures and picture frames, wallpaper, watches, and revolvers.

Finally, there was a short notice by J.R. Brown that he would “have a lot of fine Pine Trees at the Eureka woodyard, and Foster’s shop” in the days before Christmas.  Presumably, these were trees cut and hauled from the local mountains and reflected the growing use of decorated Christmas trees in houses, a trend that was rapidly developing in America broadly after being introduced from Europe, especially Germany.


It is fitting to end this post with a “Merry Christmas to All” editorial from the 24th, in which the Herald observed that “Christmas, with its pleasant memories and hallowed associations . . . is a time when all hands are open and charity reigns in the heart of every one.”  It was also noted that:

Christmas, with all its happy scenes and merry faces; with all its noise and mirth and jollity, is yet suggestive of thought and retrospect and self-communion.

Waxing (or trying to) poetic for a stretch about the recollections of the past, including some troubling memories, the editorial asked “why recall the past? It is gone; it is beyond our control.”  Instead, it implored, “to-day is ours; it is all we have.  Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Concluding its strange dialog, the piece exclaimed “Christmas should be a happy day.  It is the anniversary of Him who died so that we might live.  It is the day on which harmony and good feeling prevails and all hearts rejoice.”  Notably, nothing at all was mentioned of gifts and commercial concerns.


We’ll continue this series on the commercial aspects of Christmas through advertising with examples from the later portions of the 19th century and then through the first three decades of the 20th century, so check back for those posts.


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