Christmas Shopping in October – A Not-So-New Idea

The Bismarck Tribune, Nov. 12, 1918. Library of Congress

“Why do the stores put up Christmas decorations before Halloween? Pretty soon they’ll have them up before Fourth of July!”

How many times have you heard that? Heck, how many times have you said it?

’Deed, the elves seem to decorate stores earlier every year. A friend of mine once said, “We’ve lost a holiday somewhere. We go straight from Halloween into Christmas.”

But 100 years ago the U. S. Government all but ordered Americans to do their Christmas shopping in October or early November, according to Ellen Terrell’s “Start Now, Shop Early for Christmas!” on the Library of Congress site. And that wasn’t the first year shoppers were urged to be in the stores when the frost was barely on the pumpkin.

Be Patriotic—Do Your Christmas Shopping Early

The government’s “shop early” program was a matter of expediency. America’s military actions in Europe during the Great War required men, coal, trucks and gasoline. A 1917 Council of Defense letter said, “Thousands of men and vehicles are now unnecessarily employed in the delivery of retail stores throughout the country, and it seems obvious that in this time of emergency the waste thereby occasioned should no longer be endured.” The extra trips and manpower required to deliver small packages were to become casualties of war.

In October 1918, government rules included no lengthened store hours or additional employees, and customers were to be urged to carry their own packages. Furthermore, consumers were to be advised to buy only useful gifts (except for those for small children; in some cases this exception was presented as “does not apply to boys” rather than saying “children”) and to shop in October and November (my italics). Mailed packages were to be sent before December 5.

Early Christmas Shopping in the Victorian Era

Okay, Christmas shopping in October was patriotic under the circumstances. But retailers were turning the flying reindeer loose before Halloween long before the First World War. Even in the 1880s advertisements urged early shopping. “Christmas Season Starts Earlier Every Year!” by Paul Collins on Slate.com includes many instances, including Sioux City merchants who were chastised for promoting gift-shopping by mid-October in 1901, the same year the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “Gift buying has begun in earnest—seems to get earlier every year.”

The importance of Christmas shopping for retailers was being noted before the 20th century began. The Intelligencer in Wheeling, West Virginia, observed in 1899 that the city’s merchants declared the year had “smashed into smithereens” all previous “good year” records, with sales up as much as 40 percent. So it is hardly surprising storeowners wanted to encourage as long a shopping season as possible.

During the 1920s and ‘30s the Washington Times sponsored essay contests for schoolchildren on “Why Everybody Should Do Their Christmas Shopping Early,” according to Collins.

Regardless, it does seem to those of us of a certain age that we did not see Rudolph displayed alongside plastic jack-o-lanterns on store shelves, or Santa surrounded by witches and skeletons in retailers’ windows. In our childhood memories, there was a certain order to these things: get excited about candy and costumes in October, the prospect of turkey and pumpkin or pecan pies in November, and THEN get all hopped up about Santa’s impending visit when the Christmas trees and wreaths and animatronic elves showed up in store displays. And we are convinced it was better that way.

Christmas Ads from 1918
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