Walkabout: Selling Christmas 1883

(Christmas at Loeser’s in 1937. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library)

Every Christmas we hear complaints that the season has become less about good will towards all mankind, and more about goods bought and sold. Sadly, it has long been thus. For as long as the great shopping districts of our cities have been in existence, there has been the Christmas rush. In Brooklyn, in the late 19th century, Fulton Street, between the Heights and Flatbush Avenue had become such a shopping district. We still see the remnants of the great stores, and still have the storefronts of many of the original 19th century buildings, although most are hard to recognize now. But modern folk would still recognize the art of the sale.

Christmas of 1883 presented the buying public a cornucopia of goods. The Brooklyn Eagle, which made a lot of money selling ads to these same people, graciously spent an entire page of the paper giving the shopper of ’83 the highlights of what was in local stores. Reading through this is gives a fascinating look at culture, and a reminder that we really haven’t changed all that much. It also shows the huge variety of stores and services that once were available here, many of which are long gone. Here are a few highlights of a piece called “Holiday Goods: Santa Claus in Brooklyn and what he brings”:

“That the Christmas holidays are approaching everyone realizes, for never before in Brooklyn have the merchants made such a display. Fulton Street show windows are miracles of beauty and richness, and the scene in any store where Christmas goods are kept is gay and inspiring…

The most recently established is at present the most attractive, as well as the best patronized department in Messrs Loeser’s and Co. large store on Fulton Street. It is known as the art department, and contains one of the largest collections of rare and beautiful articles suitable for Christmas gifts that have ever been shown in Brooklyn…It is crowded with the choicest productions from the art centers of Europe, which will be found worthy of inspection not only by connoisseurs but by the still larger class of people who are interested in the establishments of their homes…There are lamps, vases, pitchers, candelabras, flower stands, plaques and sets of china and glass so delicate that an eggshell would appear coarse and clumsy in comparison, and there are articles of bronze and brass, curiously fashioned, that are not only ornamental but useful as well…”

“For the accommodation of the little folks, the firm has this year rented 300 Fulton Street, almost directly opposite their main business establishment. It is filled with toys from the windows to the ceiling. French dolls as big as a three year old child, with head and arms of bisque, and kid bodies, wearing satin robes cut after Worth’s latest patterns, greet the passersby and move their heads in the friendliest sort of style, as though beckoning them to step inside and look around at the wonders that the store contains. These, it must be understood, are the aristocratic dolls. They can do almost anything except eat, and for seventy-five dollars a little girl can be made the possessor of one of these wonderful combinations of art, mechanism, and millinery. One cent is the minimum price of dolls, and the figures ascend to the height already mentioned for the young lady in blue satin. There are hundreds of dolls and wagonloads of toys in this wonderful emporium.”

Loeser’s wasn’t the only store brimming with goods. Wechsler & Abraham, the precursor of Abraham & Straus, were going full guns, as well. “Shoppers who postpone going to Wechsler & Abraham, as the firm is familiarly known in Brooklyn, until noon or later fail to see the display of beautiful goods exhibited at this time. The store is so densely crowded after the early morning it is difficult to select articles and the effect of the display is lost.”

Wechsler & Abraham had a lot more to see and sell, but these two giants weren’t the only two stores to offer wonders to the buying public. T.K. Horton had umbrellas, gloves, perfume bottles, men’s wallets and cases and ladies’ dry goods. C. M. West, also on Fulton Street, had black cashmere on sale, “a material of which there is none better”, as well as silks in black and colors galore.

Over on Atlantic Avenue, J. O’Brian and Co. was brimming with goods, as well. They sold handkerchiefs, laces and kid gloves in one department, and also had home accessories, rugs and carpets, furniture, millinary, men’s, women’s, and children’s coats and other clothing, and more. “In the clothing department is the four buttoned cutaway coat in gray, which is the newest article out. Business suits for men and youths, children’s suits, overcoats, dressing gowns, smoking jackets, in many varieties are in stock… The stocks throughout this mammoth establishment are very large, and buyers should not fail to inspect them.”

Other stores included Wechsler Brothers, a lace merchant, A.D. Matthews; a novelties and accessories merchant, Rothschild’s; a ladies millinery, ribbons and clothing store, S.H. Jones; dishes, silverware and small jewelry, aka “fancy goods”, James Alexander; gift items like jewelry boxes, the Brooklyn Furniture Company, Nutting & Company, at Fulton and Smith; men’s and boy’s clothing, Hart Jeweler, J.Cassidy; furrier, Arnold Constable & Co.; dry goods, E.D. Burt; shoes, William Wise; jeweler’s, and the Golden Anchor; china and silver and housekeeping goods – “everything from a dust pan to the finest china”. All of these stores were on Fulton Street. And there were still more!

Here are more vendors listed in the article: Balch, Price & Co. – ladies hats. William Berri – carpets. Hardenburgh’s Carpet Store, which also sold curtains and drapes. Anderson & Co. – pianos and organs. Ovington Brothers – clocks and bric-a-brac. John Mullins – fine furniture, stoves and clocks. Cowperthwait’s (love the name!) sold household goods and furniture. Combination Clothing Company – men, boys and children’s clothing. H. & R.H. Tusker – clothing and accessories, including trunks and suitcases. Wheeler & Bolton – well known drugstore, but for Christmas: fancy pill boxes, cosmetics and cases. Smith & Pressinger – boys clothing. Webster Brothers & Co. – silverware and jewelry. Leggett Brothers – books. Long Island Clothing Company – men’s clothing. Harding Manufacturers – men’s shirts, collars, cuffs and accessories. M. Schultz & Brother – furniture. Alphonze Smith – pianos. George C. Schafuss – jeweler. C. W. Keenan – art supplies. George N. Joyce – watchmaker. Tifft & Co. – candles. P.W. Taylor – silverplate. Samuel Byer’s – shoes and boots. Harding & Co. – shoes and slippers. J. J. Carr – furniture and carpet. Riddle’s – pianos. Phelp’s – pianos, organs, and musical instruments. W. R. Clayton & Son – fireplace accessories. Joseph J. Byer’s – men’s shoes, slippers and boots. Mundell’s – shoes and boots. All of these businesses, unless noted otherwise, were all on Fulton Street in 1883. What fun shopping must have been.

In 2011, with all of the shopping, hustle and bustle of the season, please remember those who have so little this year, and donate money, goods, or time to the charity or cause of your choice. Have a happy holiday week. Walkabout will be back in 2012. Season’s Greetings!

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