Looking back at the Christmas season of 110 years ago

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

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 had 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 the 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 them a merry Christmas. 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 papers. McMillan Bros., for example, thought a food chopper at $1 was an excellent suggestion for mothers.

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-cents-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 featured 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, with 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 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 recently opened new MacDonald bridge is at this location). 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 (single fare prices for round trips) over Christmas and New Year’s, which helped fill trains to standing room only. One editor claimed 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 Year’s over Christmas persisted here and there, particularly in the north of Wellington. New Year’s greeting cards were readily available, and several merchants advertised their selections of 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.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 25,  2009.

Thorning Revisited