The Evolution of Christmas: Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles With “Pleasing Homes” from Barker Brothers, December 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Previous posts in “The Evolution of Christmas” series on this blog have included ones on “Selling the Holiday in Los Angeles” in 1874, 1898 and 1914 with the former highlighting advertising from the pages of the Los Angeles Herald newspaper, and the latter two featuring the same from the Los Angeles Express, though with a notable difference from the end of the Victorian period to the heyday of the Edwardian era.

Obviously, there was not only enormous growth in the Angel City during those four decades, but a rapid expansion of the “selling the holiday” broadly speaking, much of this directly connected, naturally, to the incredible economic transformation in America generally as well as in greater Los Angeles specifically.

Not surprisingly, this is reflected in the increasing frequency of publications generated for “selling the holiday” in the city and posts for this holiday season will focus on some of these dating from 1919 to 1929, the latter being at the tail end of the Museum’s interpretive period. These artifacts show just how much was evolving with the promotion of holiday gift giving and from a variety of vendors, including a confectioner, department store, jeweler and, with this post, a prominent furniture store.

One note that should be made before we plunge in is that the exponential expansion of the commercial aspect to the Christmas season did not take place without some concern about how this was increasingly overshadowing the holiday as a religious one, but, as history professor Ruth McClelland-Nugent of Augusta University, observed “it really became popular through this commercial process.” This includes the mass advertising movement of the early 20th century that we’ll examine through a localized lens.

So, while some of us well remember the 1947 holiday classic film, Miracle on 34th Street (which, incidentally, some consider a feminist classic in its portrayal of Maureen O’Hara’s divorcee Doris Walker), when young Alfred, the janitor who played Santa Claus because he loved the look on the faces of children with which he interacted, railed, “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it’s the same – don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck,” the reality is that making a buck has very long been integral to the holiday.

The object from the Homestead’s collection that is given center stage in this post in the December 1919 issue of “Pleasing Homes,” issued by Barker Brothers, a prominent furniture store established nearly forty years before, situated at Broadway and 7th Street in the heart of the city’s shopping district, and which was patronized by the Temple family about that time and afterwards. The firm was established by Obadiah T. Barker and, after his retirement, his sons, including Obadiah J., who’d long worked in the enterprise, Charles and William took over and the name changed to reflect their ownership.

With the tremendous growth in the Angel City and environs, Barker Brothers benefitted by the dramatic increase in trade. While the younger Obadiah died in 1908 (followed by his father two years later,” Charles and William carried on, with the latter serving as chief executive until his death in 1922, and the former taking his place until he passed away a decade later. Another post on this blog provides a window into the store’s institutional culture (publicly expressed anyway) through a January 1919 issue of its company newsletter.

“Pleasing Homes” was, of course, directed to the customer and this edition provides several examples of “practical gifts” for the Christmas season. For instance, it was asserted that “if the good wife hasn’t a tea wagon you may be sure that one would please her at Christmas time.” The one shown in a line drawing had drop leaves which meant that it could double as a breakfast table, while the china depicted “is a source of joy and pride to the whole household.”

Among other household accessories offered were a lamp, which had to “be chosen with extreme care . . . because of its prominence in the room” but was “conservative in design and should make a splendid Christmas gift,” while a bon-bon bowl and candlestick would “add charm to any interior,” and a rush-bottom chair could “fill many nooks in the home,” including a hallway, bedroom or dining room as well as be ideal for a desk. In fact, it would probably have paired well with a lady’s desk, which sported “ample writing space, with a generous supply of pigeon-holes and a good-sized drawer,” while making “an exquisite cabinet.” A desk set of mahogany was also shown.

For a holiday gift for the entire family, it was observed, “nothing can be more acceptable than an over-stuffed davenport.” Claiming that such a piece, “may solve the problem of how best to spend gift money,” the store added that “for real comfort,” the furniture, “will satisfy the most particular,” and it, as well as the lamp, was shown via a photograph, with the substantial item, having three cushions and backs, ample arms and a complex floral-and-leaf pattern.

The two pages on which these several items were depicted included a brief statement that “we make a special effort to supply the gift wants of our friends during the holiday season” and informed readers “you will be surprised at the beautiful and appropriate gifts which can be selected from our stock.” If nothing could be found that was desired, “we can get it for you,” though the store was confident that it offered “the kind of gifts which will enhance the distinctiveness of the home” and with sufficient variety and reasonable prices.

Other pages provided a quintet of photographs showing Barker Brothers furniture and furnishings showcasing the idea of “distinctiveness of the home” including “a pleasing dining suite” with all-Colonial items; another with a “commingling of other styles [that] is by no means unpleasant,” and “with a large gate-leg table filling the principal role;” a third showing an entrance hall with a tile floor and “character lent by the historic interest of its furniture;” another with “simple furniture of varied type, combined with good pictures and accessories to make an interesting and intimate interior;” and the last showing the corner of a room in which there was a “well-studied placement of accessories,” including furniture, “properly framed” pictures and other items that were “well grouped.”

An essay on “The Gift Permanent: A Happy Solution of a Universal Problem” was penned by Griffith T. Wells, who wrote articles from as far back as 1912 and as late as 1924 for Arts and Decoration magazine (published from 1910 to 1942) but who apparently might have been a nom de plume, as nothing could be located as to anyone of that name. In any case, the author (whoever he or she was!) began by stating that

A problem essentially modern is the annual list of Christmas shopping perplexities, and like many other modern problems, its solution is reached only by a few. Perhaps the most sweeping accusation that can be made against most of our Christmas giving is lack of imagination . . . we should realize that our gifts would carry more meaning and give greater pleasure if we used better judgment and more imagination in their selection.

It was added that “of all gifts that have an appropriateness both general and individual, none can compare exactly with furniture, not can any afford so peculiar a range for selection as the field of modern furniture design.” Linen and silver were more valued, Wells allowed, ‘but what of the bachelor, or of the family who is already amply supplied with linen and silver?”

Moreover, it was averred that “many attractive gifts are of transient value only,” while good furniture is a life-time possession, and a constant pleasant reminder of the giver.” To this end, Wells offered to “outline a few suggestions in a practical way” and invited the reader to “read between every line [an] additional suggestion and possibility to fill special gift requirements.” Among those recipients covered were the wife; husband; brother; sister; grandparents; college man; “bachelor girl;” bride; “bachelor friend;” and “ardent book lover.”

Wives were those who sought to mix “attractiveness with efficiency in her household,” so such items as the aforementioned tea cart, as well as sewing tables, muffin racks, dining tables, cedar chests, dressing tables and storage cabinets were among the others mentioned. Yet, while some of these were clearly for general household use, it was claimed that “this gift should not be a thing which all the family would join in using—it should be personal,” so “this suggests ‘her own writing desk.'”

Naturally, “the personal wants of the ‘man of the house’ are few (be this to his credit or otherwise,” so, after a hard day at the office (though woman’s work was not so described), what better gift could there be than “his own comfortable reading chair under the lamp at home.” For the smoker, “there is no doubt but that he has always had an ambition to possess a really fine humidor, or a stand combining a cedar-lined safe for his cigars, a place for the tobacco jars and pipe, and an ash tray.” For the bedroom, there were also wardrobes, or ‘auto-valets,” for all clothing items “from the collar-button to the silk hat,” with these providing “models and practical ingenuity and marvels of convenience.”

From a brother to a sister, there were mirrors, small writing desks, chairs and sewing stands, though “perhaps she has mentioned a very keen longing for a dressing table” and it was cautioned that “it is a mistake to suppose that attractive triple-glass dressing tables are far up in the realm of very expensive furniture.” For the reverse roles, “it does not make a great deal of difference whether he is at college or at home,” the sister, in discussions with their mother, would discuss such possibilities as a smoking table, bookcase, magazine stand, or bookends. Yet, “if he finds pleasure in the furnishing of his room, he would be far from disappointed if he received a comfortable reading and lounging chair.”

Grandparents were likely to say they needed nothing “but such expressions are not to be taken seriously,” so grandfather was certain to appreciate a reading chair “with a high-back and wing-arms that defy chilly draughts [breezes]” while his wife “traditionally and actually, finds perennial diversion in sewing and knitting,” so a low rocking chair, a work-stand or “an adjustable light and fire screen to rest tired eyes from undue light” would nicely fit the bill.

Those “bachelor girls,” Wells believed, were prone to “impromptu entertaining” in their room or studio apartment with these “often carried off with a hospitality and charm far in excess of the equipment of her apartment,” though how the writer would know this is an obvious question (at least to a cynic.) Still, he continued, “like the college girl, she is an adept with the chafing dish” and has always desired a stand for it and “is happily addicted to afternoon tea,” even if she possessed an appropriate table. With these possibilities, such a modern unmarried woman “shows a genuine and thoroughly delightful pride in her little ‘bachelor’ domain,” so aside from the above, “she never had quite enough chairs for unexpected visitors.”

The male bachelor also looked to “some useful bit of furniture” and “like most bachelors, he smokes,” and so there was a “nearly limitless variety of humidors and smoke stands,” while those who were avid readers, there “have evolved endless happy designs for small bookcases, book racks, magazine stands and book-ends,” with combination book racks and smoking stands “pleasantly suggesting the repose of book and pipe so potently eulogized” by J.M. Barrie in his “My Lady Nicotine,” though most people know him from his Peter Pan.

As for the fiancé, selections were “apt to become prettily entangled with visions of home that is to be” and which were to “always bespeak a charm that no masterpiece of the greatest designer could hope to equal.” Yet, Wells demurred “in offering more than a general suggestion”, feeling “somewhat a trespasser” because “in the case of such gifts as these, one would not expect to set rules.”

After noting that the word “Christmas” was conspicuously absent in his essay, Wells announced that, like the plot of a story,” his reason for this was saved until his concluding remarks:

A great many gift occasions arise quite remotely from the Christmas season. There are birthdays and anniversaries and weddings—and, above all, there is the problem of spending gift money in a manner which will be alike pleasant to the recipient and the giver. It is most unfortunate to lack a definite idea of how to spend gift money—and what could be more permanent, or a more constant and pleasing reminder of the giver than to acquire a long-coveted piece of furniture?

On the back cover, there is a drawing of a woman flourishing what may be a feather duster in her tastefully appointed and stylishly furnished boudoir with the greeting of a Merry Christmas and, from the store, “we wish you all the joys of the Christmas season” and an offer that any help to the reader or their friends meant that “our Christmas will be all the happier in the thought of a good service rendered.”

We’ll return soon with another “Evolution of Christmas” and “Selling the Holiday” post highlighting an artifact from the Museum’s holdings relating to holiday gift purchasing and giving, so keep an eye out for that as the Yuletide season progresses.

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