The Evolution of Christmas: Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles, 1914

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third post this holiday season on Christmas advertising in Los Angeles newspapers, following ones from 1874 and 1898, takes us to the 20th century and the 14 December 1914 edition of the Los Angeles Express.  Sampling the wide range of ads from stores in the rapidly growing city, we can readily see the evolving state of holiday promotion in a number of ways.

One obvious element has to do with the increasing number of pages in the newspaper (which was true of its contemporaries like the Herald and the Times), which meant, of course, more space for the advertising that provided the revenue needed for the Express to do its work.


Naturally, as the population of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas grew, so did the downtown shopping district and so did the stores.  Some of these were present in the late 1890s, such as Hamburger’s (later the May Company) and The Broadway, while there were plenty of new merchants.

Also notable was the widening range of specialization in many of the ads, whether through the offerings of the vendor or the fact that there was the somewhat new example, not found in the earlier posts, of the chain store, specifically Owl Drug.


One ad that particularly stands out is Sing Fat Company, a Chinese chain that had two stores in San Francisco and its Los Angeles location at Sixth and Broadway.  Whereas in the 1870s, the small Chinese community was generally despised by many Anglo and Latino residents and no commercial entrepreneurs advertised in the papers (though a doctor might) and, in the 1890s, the Chinese were tolerated but still not in a position to advertise their goods (again, the doctor and herbalist occasionally did), the Sing Fat Company did appeal and have a market for those Anglos who had adventurous tastes in “Oriental” objects.

Finally, there was an evolution in the types of goods being offered, reflecting tastes, styles and technology and a number of the ads will give us a good cross-section of this aspect.  So, with The Broadway, the top of the ad proclaims “Now at The Broadway—Columbia Graphophones and Grafonolas.”  An image shows the basic tabletop model with the open shutters for the speaker and a price of $10, though the larger, deluxe cabinet models (all used cranks to generate the movement to play the recordings) could go up to an astronomical $500.  Also advertised was the rival Edison Diamond Disc phonograph players, with cabinet models ranging from $60 to $450.  It seemed that no Edison product could be promoted without an image of the great inventor!


Elsewhere in the ad, below the substantial section denoted with “Oh! How the Toys Are Going!” and showing dolls, scooters, and teddy bears, is a small portion for Christmas Tree Ornaments and another advance, electric lights.  A strand of just eight bulbs, however, would set you back $3.50.  One online calculator determines that this amount in 2019 dollars is $90.02 and this for just eight bulbs, which wouldn’t get very far around a decent size tree!

Hamburger’s was the other preeminent advertiser, as it was in the late Nineties.  While it, also, advertised ornaments for the Christmas tree, specifically mentioned were items like tinsel garland, angel’s hair, diamond dust, tree fences and moss, but nothing was said about electric lights.  Instead, the firm was offering the old-fashioned candles and holders, though it did note that there were artificial trees for sale.


The rest of the Hamburger’s ad was clearly geared to women, with listed items including leather goods; jewelry and watches (with a woman’s image there to make a finer point); silverware; dresser pieces; gloves; ivory toilet ware; china sets; women’s clothes and hats; and so on.  The only mention of goods specifically for men was at the bottom right and concerned blanket bath robes.

Another full-page ad was for the Fifth Street Store, located at the corner of that thoroughfare and Broadway and run by the Muse, Faris, Walker Company.  This advertisement had sections for children, women and men, with toys and special bargains offered between 9 and 10 a.m. at the top.  Jewelry and women’s clothes were just below this, so the hierarchy is pretty clear in terms of who was likely to do the majority of the shopping.  Items for men were more toward the bottom, just above linens and the sale items found in the store basement.


Hale’s, situated on Broadway between 3rd and 4th, offered its twist by promoting its January clearance sale in December and stating that holiday items were offered with staple goods.  Again, most of these were oriented towards women, with coats, suits and dresses for them and “misses” taking center stage.  Another element specific to Hale’s was the “gift booth” were discounted gifts for 25, 50 and 75 cents were offered.

Also mentioned that was different than from earlier years was the concept of “American trading checks,” which was akin to what a modern store like Kohl’s does with “Kohl’s Cash.”  When a certain amount of money is spent, say, $100, a percentage of that is given out, like $25, in check form as an incentive to return and buy more items.  There were also merchants who had credit terms, something else that was becoming a more common feature of retail purchasing.


Drug stores were a relatively new phenomenon in the early 20th century, though there were pharmacists and druggists prior to that.  A major chain in greater Los Angeles in those early years of the 1900s was The Owl Drug Company, a forerunner to Savon, Thrifty and today’s CVS and Walgreen’s.  In its ad, under the heading of “Merry, Merry Christmas Bells, So Sweetly Chiming,” items promoted were dresser and toilet sets, picture frames, cigarette and cigar holders and other household items.  Owl also promoted its policy of accepting deposits for reserving any item, a type of layaway.

Other retail vendors of note in the Express include the jewelers Brock and Company and its advertising of prestigious Rookwood pottery; the Barker Brothers furniture store and its promotion of phonograph players, including the Victrola in addition to the Columbia and Edison machines; and the Ville de Paris, which, aside from advertising some of its good, promoted its “Toy-Ville” for children.


As for Sing Fat Company, situated on Broadway, south of 6th Street, it had a very interesting description worth quoting in full:

From the land of the Joss, far across the shining seas, thousands of beautiful articles have been brought, each one unique as a holiday gift.  Possibly it is the wide contrast between languid Oriental luxury and the “hurry” spirit of the West that adds a romantic glamor to gifts coming from the Far East, and makes them so heartily appreciated, no matter how small they may be.

Claiming that shopper could buy all their Christmas gifts at the store, Sing Fat listed tea sets, vases, ivory pieces, perfumes, robes, incense burners, jade jewelry, dinner gongs, fans, lamp shades, and “queer water toys” among its offerings of “Christmas gifts from Far Off China.”  This was just a couple of years after the overthrow of the last Chinese emperor and, now, over a century later, so many of the goods Americans buy are manufactured in China.


Tomorrow we’ll add a fourth post on this subject of holiday advertising in Los Angeles newspapers with a look at the pages of the 21 December 1925 edition of the Times.

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