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1x08 | Victorian Christmas Shopping

At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas celebrations were about feasting and revelry, and the holiday was much more public than private. Then, throughout the Victorian era, the focus shifted from hedonism to time spent with your family and friends, and giving gifts was a way to express your affection for those people. The tradition of gift-giving became more commercialized throughout the century and morphed into the materialistic, commercial holiday which we know today.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

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The custom of exchanging gifts this time of year actually began as a New Years tradition. In fact, Queen Victoria continued to give out gifts on New Years until she died in 1901, though most people had switched to gift-giving on Christmas by that time.

Today we associate Christmas with charity and generosity, but initially gifts were given by those lower on the social rung to those higher up, to reinforce the social hierarchy. Kings received gifts from their lords, who received gifts from their knights, and so on. Then, as we can see in the Tudor era, winter celebrations involved a playful reversal of the hierarchy, with peasants dressing up as lords and vice versa. This is when more modern ideas like tipping at Christmas began to take shape and the focus shifted to giving charity or gifts to those less fortunate. Later on, this was promoted by Charles Dickens in particular, who emphasized the importance of goodwill and generosity in his 1834 classic A Christmas Carol.

It was during the Victorian era that Christmas became more focused on children, rather than on the poor. As I mentioned in episode 7, it was during this time that people began to think of childhood as a sacred stage of life. The new middle class had smaller families with more attention and money given to each child, and this sometimes came in the form of Christmas gifts. While ideas about childhood were changing, ideas about home life were changing as well. It was increasingly common for work to be done outside the house, and for a wife’s responsibilities to include making the home a sanctuary for the family where they were protected from the harsh outside world. The ideal wife was referred to as "the Angel in the House", in reference to a poem that Coventry Patmore wrote about his own wife. Creating an attractive home interior was of the utmost importance and women’s magazines contained instructions on how to decorate specifically for Christmas. Part of creating domestic bliss at this time of year was giving your lovely children gifts to reward them for their good behavior.

It was at the beginning of the 19th century that we began to see advertisements in newspapers for items being marketed specifically as gifts, and especially as gifts for children. More and more products were being created for children and it was because of the industrial revolution that toys became more affordable, along with plenty of products for adults.

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of shopping for those items drastically changed. Back in the 18th century, shopping was typically done at outdoor markets or by going to see individual craftsmen. Over time, markets moved indoors and more permanent stores with a variety of goods were established. Then, department stores were created, and they changed the retail industry forever. These were stores which had a vast array of products at fixed, reasonable prices, so you didn’t have to haggle over anything. Department stores often contained restaurants and hosted special events like product demonstrations. Their window displays attracted passers by and their large, luxurious interiors made them into sightseeing destinations. Shopping became a way to spend a day.

People had more disposable income, and attractive places to spend that money, and the Victorian materialist culture gave them an excuse to buy all kinds of things they didn’t need. When it came to Christmas, department stores were particularly appealing. The elaborate window displays which drew people in all through the year became even more extravagant at Christmastime. One of the most celebrated window displays was that of R. H. Macy & Co. in New York. In 1847, they claimed their Christmas display contained $10,000-worth of dolls. Each year, they created a different tableau like a doll’s croquet party or, like in 1876, a colonial doll display. Macy’s was far from the only store which went big decorating for Christmas. Going on a walk through town to see the displays became a festive activity in itself, even if you weren’t going to buy anything.

If you chose to venture inside, there were extravagant decorations there too, like enormous Christmas trees in the main entrance halls. Then along came Santaland. While Macy’s has had a Santa display since 1862, they weren’t the first to host Santa in person. In 1890, James Edgar dressed up as Santa Claus to greet children in his department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, and the idea quickly caught on.

There were all kinds of toys which Santa Claus might bring a Victorian child, many of them inspired by the British empire, like toy soldiers, warships, and small military suits made for young boys that came with toy weapons and armor. Dolls were popular gifts for girls and in the UK there was a trend of making dolls with faces modeled after Queen Victoria’s children.

Books were also popular Christmas gifts, so authors purposefully published books in the weeks before Christmas so they would benefit from the seasonal sales boost. More and more books were written specifically about Christmas to be sold that time of year, and they were given more decorative, ornate covers to make them look more like special presents. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published as a gift book, and the production costs involved in making it gift-worthy are the reason Dickens didn’t make much money off the novel when it was first released. Along with Christmas books there were Christmas annuals - collections of short stories, poetry, and engravings. They were mostly made for women, but there were versions for children which were particularly popular in the American west, where children had fewer things around them for festive entertainment.

For adults, gift-giving came with extensive etiquette rules, especially when it came to exchanging gifts with members of the opposite sex. The rules varied based on how you were related to that person, whether or not you were courting them, and what rank you each had in society. For example, if a man gave a gift to a woman he was trying to woo, it was considered bad taste to give her something too extravagant and expensive because it was seen as trying to buy her affections. It was better if the gift was perishable - like flowers or candies - but you could still spend big bucks on those items.

In general, gifts for women were things like like scented soaps or sachets, or if you were close it might be expensive jewelry or perfumes. For men, appropriate gifts were new inventions like cork-screws and pen-knives. If you were a woman giving a man a gift it was expected to be handmade and dainty, like a smoking cap or house slippers, but if you were going the store-bought route, then shaving-soap vases, silver compasses, and tobacco boxes and pouches were in vogue. Women’s magazines frequently had Christmas gift guides, and in the 1864 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book it says:
"There can be no holiday gift from a young lady to a young gentleman more appropriate than a gold pen. It is suggestive of mental power and moral improvement, of refinement of thought, and progress in civilization. Would you indicate the highest heroism and patriotism to your masculine friends, remember that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’"

Gift-giving has always been made exciting by the ceremony of revealing the gift. Earlier in the 19th century, when gifts were usually smaller, you could hide them until it was time to exchange gifts. Some gifts were small enough that they could be hung on a Christmas tree, but as presents got larger and more numerous, they moved under the tree. Since they were too big to hide away before Christmas, gift wrapping became a way to maintain the surprise in advance. Gift wrapping was also a way to make store-bought gifts feel more personal. As stores caught on to the popularity of gift wrapping, they began offering it in stores and as part of their delivery services. They also caught onto how people preferred less commercial, handmade items, so they began offering gifts which were mostly assembled ahead of time but that could be personalized by the gift-giver.

All this focus on Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping was enjoyable for the moneyed upper and middle classes, but it took a toll on the lower class workers employed in shops. The advent of gas and electric lighting meant stores could stay open for longer hours and businesses took advantage of weak labor laws to get as much out of their workers as they could. Some labor laws which did limit the length of a shift made exceptions during the holiday season, so retail workers could be forced to work longer hours than usual during the most exhausting time of the year. Journalists covered stories on shop assistants being forced to work 16 hour days without overtime pay, and even a medical journal, The Lancet, published a piece called "The Cry of the Shop Assistant" in 1896. As a result, labor activists began asking people to do their Christmas shopping earlier in the season to ease the burden on retail workers, just as today people are encouraged to make online purchases well in advance of Christmas, to ease the burden on delivery drivers. 

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