“Children don’t appreciate traditional toys anymore; all they want are the latest expensive gadgets,” parents were probably grousing…in 1910.
Take a close look at the advertisement to the right (click or tap to enlarge). It’s presumably Christmas morn’ and the wee ones have just ripped into their gifts. But is Junior playing with his toy soldiers, alphabet blocks or bugle? Is li’l sister caring for her new dolly? Nope; they’re both ignoring their toys and are instead mesmerized by whatever’s playing on their state-of-the-art Edison phonograph (the “Fireside” model shown here was cutting edge technology because it could play two-minute and four-minute cylinders). The kids were possibly even listening to a recording of that new trashy pop music with suggestive lyrics such as, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”
And look at the ad directly below that one: The electrical store was promoting “Christmas Tree Electric Lighting Outfits For Rent or Sale.” This appears to be the first time electric Christmas tree lights were available for Santa Rosa homes. While illuminated trees were famously on display as far as the 1880s, they were only available to a wealthy few. Light bulbs of any kind were handmade, ridiculously expensive and often burned out quickly. A simple string of lights might have cost the equivalent of hundreds of dollars today – impractical to buy, but something our Santa Rosans of a century ago might have considered renting. Newspapers in other towns promoted the safety factor as well, considering that candlelit trees sometimes caught fire (along with the cotton beards of ersatz Santas).
Both the new phonograph and availability of electric tree lights were advances in technology that would have been recognized as sure signs of progress in 1910, but are so incremental as to be barely noticeable today. Reading the old papers from a distance of more than a century, however, one thing jumps out: This was the first Christmas that felt truly modern.
Other advances in the 1910 Santa Rosa papers were discussed in an earlier article. There were suddenly more ads aimed at women, including new businesses offering women-oriented services. Advertising in both papers became more stylish, with appealing artwork and graphic design. There were still fusty Victorian-era illustrations to be found on every page – some running unchanged for years, their engravings now blurry with accumulated ink – but every edition usually had a few hints that Santa Rosa was finally tiptoeing into the 20th Century.
Nowhere is this more apparent than comparing the December, 1910 papers to Christmases past. That ad for the phonograph records showing children in an unposed setting was the sort of thing never seen in earlier years. The images of Santa Claus in other 1910 ads are easily recognizable today, with St. Nick inviting readers to come to the downtown stores and enjoy gift shopping. Contrast that to the odd ad seen at right, which Mr. Potter’s plumbing supply store ran for a couple of years prior. The figure in the cartoon looks less like jolly ol’ Santa than an aggrieved garden gnome, perhaps demanding something be done about your dog tinkling on him and his fellow lawn ornaments.
Before 1910 Christmas ads always emphasized the stores had “practical” things to place under the tree, and old ways die hard. “Handkerchiefs – The Gift Popular”, read an ad from The White House department store, and Moodey’s Shoe Store promised slippers would be considered an “adequate present.” But the ad below from Mailer Hardware shows that pitch had slacking appeal. While the store still promised to sell you “sensible, useful Christmas Gifts,” it emphasized “things for the children” and “presents for all.”
This and the other 1910 ads from J.C. Mailer Hardware may be the best example of the way newspaper advertising had changed that year. All used cartoonist Richard F Outcault’s popular “Yellow Kid” in whimsical situations to sell plows, building supplies and most often, firearms and ammunition (“You Cant Miss It” his nightshirt read in one gun ad, as The Kid unsafely propped a shotgun on his shoulder while waving a revolver in the other hand). Yes, it’s a hardware store and you’d be walking through the door to buy a hammer, a shovel, a box of rat poison; but the Yellow Kid hinted there also could be a bit of fun in giving them your money. That attitude is indeed part of the secret sauce in modern advertising, and what makes the Christmas ads from 1910 still so recognizable today.