The Story Of the First Christmas Ads

The following excerpt about the age-old material significance of Christmas comes from Pulitzer nominated Prof. Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, (Random House, 1997):

“If the domestic reform of Christmas began as an enterprise of patricians, fearful for their authority, it was soon being reinforced by merchants, who needed the streets to be cleared of drunks and rowdies in order to secure them for Christmas shoppers; by shoppers who in turn needed to feel secure in the streets; and by newspaper editors whose success depended on their mediating between other businessmen and their own readers (who were shoppers, too). Advertisements for Christmas presents actually began to appear as early as the first signs of interest in St. Nicholas emerged, although they did not become common for several more decades. The first explicit ad for Christmas presents I have found anywhere in the United States comes from a New England community, Salem, Massachusetts. Dating from 1806 and headed “Christmas Gifts,” the advertisement was placed by a local bookseller. … Boston and New York had their first Christmas advertising two years later, in 1808, when two such ads appeared in the New York Evening Post. One of these was for a shop offering “four hundred and fifty kinds of Christmas presents and New-year’s gifts, consisting of toys, childrens [sic] and school books, Christmas pieces, Drawing books, Paint, Lead Pencils, Conversations and Toy cards, Pocket Books, Penknives, &c.”

The advertising began to proliferate after 1820. By 1823 Christmas was already becoming so commercial that one Boston magazine was able to make a joke of it: “[There] is a time to give,” says Solomon, and had [that] preacher lived in these days, he would have acknowledged, that there was no time like the present, and never a better assortment of gifts. Could he [just] peep into the Bookstore of Munroe & Francis, … he might find a book for each of his wives [and] concubines, and each of their children, without purchasing duplicates. A decade later, in 1834, a letter printed in a Boston Unitarian magazine suggested that the available choice of presents, and the aggressiveness with which they were being advertised, had reached the point where Christmas shopping was becoming a source of confusion. “The days are close at hand when everybody gives something to somebody,” this letter began:  All the children are expecting presents, and all aunts and cousins to say nothing of near relatives, are considering what they shall bestow upon the earnest expectants. … I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things to suit all sorts of tastes; and am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.” 

It seems that our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers were as Christmas-shopping-crazy as we are today. Enjoy your presents and Merry Christmas!

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