Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

Community News Network

November 7, 2013

The myth that Christmas season starts earlier every year

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's the kind of jump-the-gun October ad that brings the same excuse, year after year: "This may SEEM a little premature to you - but it really is NOT . . . " Ah, yes: It's once again the time of year when retail giants begin their insistent reminders that there are "not many days left in which to do your Christmas buying."

But here's the catch: This ad ran in 1912.

The gripe about Christmas coming "earlier every year" is a hardy media perennial across decades and borders, as British complaints in 1954 and American ones in 1968 about September Santas attest. But the practice of pushing early shopping is much older - older, even, than that 1912 ad - and the blame goes to everyone from retailers to rabble-rousers to the U.S. government.

Like so many of our retailing habits, early shopping dates back to the late Victorians. Along with inventing cash registers, mail-order catalogs, and escalator-filled flagship stores, the Victorians also discovered the value of starting the Yuletide shopping season before Thanksgiving. A Nov. 19, 1885, ad by South Carolina retailer Wilhite & Wilhite already shows the familiar combination of apology and all-caps hucksterism: "KEEP IT IN MIND! It is needless to remind you that CHRISTMAS IS COMING, But we want everybody who intends purchasing CHRISTMAS PRESENTS to comprehend that we are now all ready . . ."

It was only a short leap from ad copy to in-store blowouts. A Nov. 16, 1888, event by the Kansas City, Mo., emporium Bullene, Moore, Emery & Company saw a preholiday rush that "packed every square foot of the store," while promotions for an 1893 "Early Christmas Event" by one Salt Lake City retailer almost reads like a ransom note: "This is no joke. We mean it. We will do it . . . MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY."

Inevitably, complaints followed. The problem, then as now, was not the idea of shopping before Thanksgiving - that barrier had already toppled - but the more heated question of pushing past another holiday and into the precincts of Halloween. Sioux City, Iowa, merchants were berated in 1901 for revving up Christmas sales in mid-October, and that same season saw the Philadelphia Inquirer sighing the annual complaint that "Gift buying has begun in earnest - seems to get earlier every year."

Early shopping might have faded into history like other Gilded Age excesses were it not for the arrival of an utterly counterintuitive player into our story: progressive titan Florence Kelley. Better known today as a co-founder of the NAACP - and for teaming up with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to start the Intercollegiate Socialist Society - Kelley also has a special place under the historian's Christmas tree. Her widely distributed 1903 essay, "The Travesty of Christmas," was not, as you might expect from a socialist suffragette, an attack on early shopping - it was in support of it.

The December rush on stores, Kelley explained, brought "a bitter inversion of the order of holiday cheer" for overwhelmed clerks and delivery boys. Early shopping was part of Kelley's crusades for child labor laws and an eight-hour workday, because the last few weeks before Christmas were exactly when overtime and seasonal child labor were most abused. The employment of messenger and delivery boys especially appalled her, as these were the "many children for whom the cruel exposure attending their holiday work is followed by nervous prostration, or pneumonia, too often ending in tuberculosis."

Kelley's mass movement, the National Consumers League, turned their "Shop Early Campaign" into a progressive juggernaut over the next decade: Tens of thousands of posters were distributed in cities each year to halt "the inhuman nature of the eleventh-hour rush" on sales clerks. Cities were annually plastered with "Do Your Christmas Shopping Early" signs - "they are everywhere," a wire service reported from New York City in 1913.

Savvy merchants were quick to adopt the Shop Early Campaign, which made for strange bedfellows: Shop Early was promoted by retail clerk unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alike. And as ever, a few retailers were ready to push beyond even these new boundaries of good taste. One 1914 Hoosier Cabinet ad coyly appealed to American wives: "Just Wink your Christmas eye at Mr. Husband and say 'Hoosier.' " The ad ran in August.

The transformation of the early shopping movement was complete by 1918, when the Council of National Defense backed early buying to ease transport and labor shortages - and ran jaw-dropping ads of Santa Claus in a doughboy uniform, urging Americans to "Take the Crush out of Your Christmas Shopping and Put It Into Winning the War."

Retailers' fondness for early shopping meant that these efforts were kept up after the war, too. One Albuquerque, N.M., retailer in 1920 demanded, with unanswerable logic, "If Christmas Came Tomorrow, Would You Be Ready?" Americans were: Shop Early drives roared through the 1920s and 1930s, and the Washington Times even held prize contests for schoolchildren to write 100-word essays on "Why Everybody Should Do Their Christmas Shopping Early." The notion continued making wartime surges, with the postmaster general urging Americans in August 1943 to shop "really early, indeed right now" - a situation revisited in the Vietnam War.

By then, early Christmas shopping had fermented into the potent historical brew of idealism, patriotism and sheer retail gluttony that we know today. Uneasiness over November shopping and outright ire over September and October sales are now some of America's oldest Yuletide traditions. Like the annual unwrapping of a fruitcake or an ugly sweater, the idea that Christmas "comes earlier every year" is entirely predictable, bound by tradition - and yet somehow always surprising to us.

              

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • quake.jpg Pennsylvania won’t take action following Ohio ruling on quakes, fracking

    Pennsylvania officials plan no action despite new Ohio rules on drilling that affect a seismically active area near the state line.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 17, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 17, 2014

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.51.22 PM.png VIDEO: Toddler climbs into vending machine

    A child is safe after climbing into and getting stuck inside a claw crane machine at a Lincoln, Neb., bowling alley Monday.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • portraitoflotte.jpg VIDEO: From infant to teen in four minutes

    Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester’s time lapse video of his daughter, Lotte — created by filming her every week from her birth until she turned 14 — has become a viral sensation.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 15, 2014

Obituaries
Featured Ads
Poll

The Iowegian wants readers to think about rental permit fees. The Centerville City Council has conducted two working sessions and a third one is planned in order to get a feel for the public's appetite about raising rental permit fees from charging a landlord $25 every two years to charging a certain amount per rental unit per year. So, the question of the week is, "Are you in favor of Centerville increasing rental permit fees?"

A. I'm in favor.
B. I'm not in favor.
C. I'm not sure.
     View Results
Iowegian on Facebook