The Evolution of Christmas: Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles, 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the first installment of this series on Christmas advertising in Los Angeles newspapers, we looked at issues of the Los Angeles Herald from December 1874.  The region was at the peak of its first significant period of growth and development, business activity dramatically increased, and the town’s three daily newspapers were one way to see those elements in action.

The celebration of Christmas was also on the rise locally and more broadly and that, too, can be discerned in the pages of the press compared to earlier periods.  As we move into the second installment of “The Evolution of Christmas” and leap forward nearly a quarter century, we’ll see these aspects more magnified.  Tonight’s example from the Homestead’s collection is the 15 December 1898 issue of the Los Angeles Express.


For one thing, the population of Los Angeles by 1900 was about ten times what it was in the early 1870s, so with more people meant, naturally, a larger business community, including retail merchants.  Moreover, while the newspapers of the 1870s were all four pages, those at the end of the century were usually about 24 pages or so.

Of course, this meant far more space for advertisements, including those of much larger size like full-page examples, and there were more stores plying their wares to their growing clientele.  The scope and scale of offerings is also more notable, with the variety of commercial goods far eclipsing what was available twenty-five years or so prior and the commercialization of the holiday generally was more pronounced, as well.  Additionally, individual items and their prices were provided, something not found in the smaller ads in the four-page dailies of the Seventies.


Also much different was the use of graphics, whether this was in ads or in the rest of the papers, because, in the 1870s, it was very rare to find any type of illustration compared to what came later.  So, we’ll have several examples both of images in the many advertisements by Los Angeles’ merchants and in the other pages of the periodical.

Among the best-known and most popular of the mercantile establishments in the City of Angeles was the Broadway Department Store, which had a long life in our region.  Here the business proclaimed, “We’re Doing the Grandest Holiday Business Ever Witnessed in Los Angeles” and an image showed a large assemblage of children running toward the store, where doll cabs, four-wheeled wagons, and two-wheeled carts were featured products, the latter for just three cents.


Special prices were offered to organizations like schools, clubs and private parties and a promotion including having Santa Claus at the store the next afternoon to answer letters from children, who posted theirs in the box in front of the store by noon.

Not to be outdone on local appearances by St. Nick, Fixen and Company advertised that “The Genuine Santa Claus” was at the store every day, handing out candy and other gifts to children, although “he refuses children whose parents are not with them.”  The store noted that “Our Holiday Novelties are the talk of the town” including silver sterling gifts, dolls, leather items, and more.


J.M. Hale Company not only had Santa available to talk to “quick, direct and no lingering for an answer” and this meant that “lots and lots of folks are every day being relieved of their Christmas troubles,” but Saturday afternoons from 2 to 5 included free concerts by Arend’s Orchestra.  Meanwhile the store listed prices for clothing, perfume, dolls, games, books and “fancy goods” of all kinds.

Finally, jolly old St. Nick could be found every morning and afternoon at another preeminent department store in Los Angeles, that of A. Hamburger and Sons, later the May Company.  The store, through its massive full-page ad, also invited patrons to see its window display of “Christmas novelties” and its “Toy Fair” in the basement.  The large ad featured many items, such as clothing and accessories, furs, watches at half price, silver novelties, household furnishings, china and bric-a–brac, and “No Warmed-Over Toys.”


Other merchants marketed directly to the adults.  The Edward Germain Wine Company advertised for “Christmas Cheer” telling its patrons that “if you would have your Christmas merry, order your wines” and featured wine and whisky of various types, including orange wine at 90 cents per gallon.  It also asked its clientele to “give us your brandy and wine orders for mince pies.”

The Los Angeles Furniture Company not only went for older folks, but straight to its male clientele with its advertisement promoting “Easy Chairs for Tired Old Men” with these being “great big soft, comfortably shaped—comfortably priced” examples.  It added “they look like Christmas presents—they are Christmas presents of the noble kind.”  The featured easy chairs and rockers were all described as for men only, something you just don’t see done these days!


Speaking of gender specific advertising, the London Clothing Company promoted its “stream of gifts” for men and boys, though the image is of a Roman goddess holdings a large vessel from which pour out items of all kinds for the male customer.  The store was later known by the name of its proprietors: Harris and Frank.

Another large ad was for the Up-To-Date Department Store, which had a greeting by Santa promoting the “Holiday Stocks” offered and proclaiming “we are going to bombard this city with bargains until all the town is buying Christmas gifts here.”  The extensive listing of toys, juvenile books, holiday baskets, household goods, linens and fabrics, domestic goods and more showed the significant inventory at the store.


Barker Brothers, long a prominent furniture company in the city, took a novel approach to its advertising by crying out “Oh! Those Memories!” and inviting its patrons to hearken back to childhood.  The vignette shows a child in a brass bed with a dog named Dewey at the side and part of a table-top Christmas tree (trees on the floor were not in vogue until a little later, but were on tables for many decades) in view.  The child wears a soldier’s cap and a sword and rifle hint at the popularity at military-style gifts in the year of the Spanish-American War, when patriotism ran rampant in the country.

Finally, there is another novel ad from the South Pasadena Ostrich Farm, later renamed for its owner, Edwin Cawston.  Located on the border with Los Angeles along Mission Road, the highly popular tourist attraction also sold boxed ostrich feathers, and ostrich feather capes and boas through its on-site salesroom.  The farm appealed to tourists by suggesting a unique Christmas present to send back east and offered a Sunday special of admission and round-trip transportation from hotels and other lodging for fifty cents.


The issue also has plenty of Christmas contest in its columns, including a lengthy reprinted feature from McCall’s magazine on “How Christmas is Celebrated in Other Countries.”  Most of the article concerns traditions from Germany, a major source of those that became popular in America, though there is discussion about celebrations in the Netherlands, France, and Italy, as well.

A short article of interest was relayed by a county clerk named Kutz who reminisced about his Christmas adventures in 1864 during the Civil War when his regiment was on a transport in the Gulf of Mexico and was chased by a Confederate privateer as it headed for New Orleans in preparation for an assault on Mobile, Alabama.  Kutz noted that the captain of his vessel eluded capture by steering for Galveston and safety and he and his compatriots managed to make it to the Crescent City for Christmas Day.


There was also a full Christmas page with illustrations of Santa with his sack of toys by a Christmas tree and one titled “Santa Claus Up-To-Date—Prancer and Blitzen Turned Out to Pasture,” showing St. Nick riding in a horseless carriage, while the reindeer looked on from behind fences.  The first automobile was introduced in Los Angeles the prior year by E.L. Erie of Boyle Heights.

Another unusual cartoon, titled “Santa Claus Approaching Los Angeles” shows him in a curved conveyance pulled by butterflies, while tropical plants, including palm trees, are in the scene.  There is also an image of a young girl writing to Santa on what looks like a window pane, which is another distinctive representation of the holiday.


The final item of note is a remarkable cartoon is one denoted as “Underneath the Mistletoe—Beneath the Stars and Stripes” and which shows couples posed under the seasonal plant in nations recently conquered by the United States during the Spanish-American War, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines, with the center image of an American couple.

It is certainly a strange holiday image to modern lights, but part of the value of having this newspaper issue in the museum’s holdings is to show the similarities and differences between our region now and over 120 years ago, whether this is through the celebration of Christmas, representation of current events, or how businesses advertised their goods to customers.  A third and final post in this series is coming soon.


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