Looking back at the Christmas season of 100 years ago

This is the 20th Christmas column I have written since Valuing Our History began in the old Elora Sentinel. Some readers enjoy Yuletide subjects that recall their youth, while others enjoy older material. It has been several years since I have gone back a century for material. This year, the subject matter will go back 100 years, to Christmas 1909.


A general feeling of opti­mism and permeated the coun­try­side at the end of 1909. The North American economy had experienced a deep but brief de­pression in 1907. Agricul­tur­al prices tumbled, but two years later markets had recovered, and the outlook was even better for the coming year. That put people, and especially farmers, in a mood to spend a little mon­ey at Christmas.

Merchants seemed to be quite patient 100 years ago to secure the Christmas trade, and the shopping season was short­er than today. Most weekly  news­papers came out on Wed­nes­day or Thursday those days. Only a few ran special Christ­mas ads that first week of De­cember. Christmas features came with a flood the next week, in the papers of Dec. 8 and 9. Beginning Dec. 15, many stores remained open every night of the week. Feat­ur­ed items were a range of practical and luxury items.

G.F. Sutton’s hardware store in Erin featured penknives for men and boys, and silverware for the ladies. Down the street, R.M. Bell thought gifts of jewel­ry, clocks, and hand-paint­ed china were excellent choices. Gale and Company of Erin preferred more practical sug­gestions: shoes at $3.50 and $4 per pair, scarves, fancy dresses for women, and silk ties for men.

Erin’s children were prob­ably delighted when Santa’s Hall opened in Gear’s store in Erin. But the selection of toys there was not large compared to what would be available a gen­eration later. Gear’s also had a good stock of more practical items such as gloves and hand­kerchiefs.

A telling advertisement in many papers on Dec. 22 and 23 was a quarter-page message from the T. Eaton Company, thanking customers for their trade and wishing a merry Christ­mas to customers. It is im­possible to estimate the im­pact that Eaton’s and other mail order firms had on the local trade, but it no doubt was con­siderable. 

In addition to mail order com­petition, many Guelph stor­es advertised in outlying communities, particularly in the Erin, Elora, and Fergus newspapers. McMillan Bros., for example, thought a food chopper at $1 was an excellent suggestion for mother.

In Elora, grocer J.M. Wilson brought in seasonal items for Christmas baking. Steele Bro­th­ers in Fergus advised custo­mers that they were “prepared for the biggest and best Christ­mas trade in their history. Down on the next block, James Russell boasted that he operat­ed “Fergus’ Foremost Christ­mas Store,” and welcomed child­ren to visit his Toyland. Harry Harrison, “The Fergus Shoe Man,” was moved to rhyme: “There’s nothing like leather when well put together for all kinds of weather.”

For northern Wellington Santa maintained a head­quart­ers at W.G. Scott’s store in Mount Forest. Scott suggested air rifles at 75 cents as excel­lent choices for boys. At the high end of the scale were elec­tric table lamps at $20. Electric lighting and appliances were still very much luxury items in 1909.

For a time, it seemed that electric lamps would be useless in Mount Forest that Christ­mas. The privately-owned pow­er supplier had installed an updated generator on Dec. 22. It broke down later in the day. Staff at the plant rushed to the CPR station, and grabbed the technician before he could step aboard his train. He managed to get the plant up and running properly, and still was able to get back to his Toronto home late on Christmas Eve.

Burgess, the Mount Forest jeweler, noted that he had “mast­ered the art of Christmas giving.” He advised gifts of high grade items, such as rings as high as $9, and gold watches from $4.50 to $15. Those were steep prices in an era of 25-cent per hour wages.

The weather during the week before Christmas was cold and cloudy in 1909, with a little snow most days. That made travel by sleigh easy for farmers, to the delight of mer­ch­ants. The cold wave contin­u­ed after Christmas, hitting 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Cel­sius) on the night of Dec. 29 in many places in Wellington.

Residents of the Moorefield area enjoyed a special treat in 1909. A couple of weeks before Christmas, H.E. Bywater, the rotund proprietor of the Palm­erston Spectator, began publi­ca­tion of the Moorefield Ad­vance. The new newspaper was printed at his office in Pal­merston, but it did not enjoy a long life.

A syndicated feature that a number of area newspapers pub­lished was a suggested Christmas dinner. To the mod­ern palette it may seem plain and heavy, but it does not differ greatly from what many people will be devouring this week.

The meal began with a clear soup, accompanied by toast fin­gers, salt peanuts, and pickled pears. The main course feature roast goose, stuffed with pota­toes, and served with spiced gravy, steamed yams, creamed turnips, jellied apples, and cel­ery sticks. A celery and orange salad lightened the fare a little. A dessert of plum pudding with a sugar sauce followed, and pumpkin pie as an alternative, followed by plenty of black cof­fee to wash it all down.

There were several recipes published for plum pudding. Ingredients invariably included molasses, brown sugar, flour, milk, suet, bread crumbs, rais­ins and currants, all steamed together for three or four hours. Recipes for the sauce suggested using beaten egg white to make the mixture of icing sugar and cream light and foamy.

Schools closed for the Christ­mas holidays on Dec. 21, most after an assembly and performances by the more tal­ented students. Gift exchanges were popular in many schools, and the trustees passed out bags of candy to the pupils. Sunday schools at most churches stag­ed Christmas pageants and con­certs, the bulk of which were scheduled during the week immediately before Christmas.

In Elora, a big volunteer effort was under way. The vill­age had no skating rink since the closure of a private facility. While civic leaders wrestled with the logistics of building one, a group of citizens set up a rink just upstream from the old Victoria Street bridge on the Grand River. The group con­struc­ted some change rooms with donated lumber, and car­ried out a canvas for more money. The cold weather be­fore Christmas produced thick ice on the river and brought out many skaters.

With a little extra cash in many pockets, travel was very popular in 1909. The railways put into service every car that would turn a wheel. The Grand Trunk offered holiday fares of single fare prices for round trips over Christmas and New Years, and that helped to fill the trains to standing room only. One editor claimed that most householders had out-of-town guests for Christmas. Those who didn’t were themselves travelling.

For adults, a leading subject of discussion over the holidays was the coming election for municipal councils. Nomina­tion meetings were held in most municipalities on Dec. 27. The vote was a particularly exciting one that year, with plebi­scites on the liquor ques­tion in Eramosa, Orangeville, Fergus, Nichol, Elora, and Pilkington. For the first time, the anti-prohibition side mount­ed an active and aggressive campaign.

Prohibition rallies and meet­ings alternated with Christ­mas concerts before Christmas and continued until voting day. The anti-liquor forces achieved majorities in all the area muni­cipalities where the issue was on the ballot, but only in Orangeville and Eramosa did they gain the necessary 60% for the measure to pass. The prohibitionists promised to be back the next year.

The old Scottish custom of favouring New Years over Christmas persisted here and there, particularly in the north of Wellington. New Years greet­ing cards were readily available, and several merch­ants advertised their selections of New Years goods and gifts.

Overall, religious observ­an­ces played a secondary role to gift giving and hospitality, a situation that is somewhat sur­prising in an era when the churches were so prominent in community affairs. It was a marked change from the situ­ation 35 or 40 years earlier. Even so, the majority of people attended a church service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.


Stephen Thorning