Christmas Shopping 2020 Through a Historical Lens

It’s being predicted that this holiday season will feature more e-commerce than ever, so online retailers like Amazon have spent the last few months hiring new employees in preparation for the surge in orders. Even with this hiring spree, people are still worried about the stress which will be faced by e-commerce workers and delivery drivers. As a result, it’s been recommended that people buy their gifts earlier rather than later to spread out the load placed on workers at companies like Amazon. In past years, encouragement to get your Christmas shopping done early came in the form of early bird deals offered by retailers attempting to lengthen the holiday shopping season. Now that message is coming from labor activists.


This isn’t the first time this change has happened. During the 19th century, Christmas shopping first grew to be big business. Industrialization led to mass production of consumer goods, like Christmas toys, and the new middle class had plenty of disposable income to be spent at new department stores with their dramatic, festive displays. This was the time in history when shopping became a way to spend a day and materialism was rampant. Throughout the century, Christmas went from being a relatively unremarkable holiday to being a highly profitable commercial holiday centered around gift giving. Even the book Little Women opens with Jo March proclaiming that "Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents".


By the turn of the century, labor activists were asking people to do their Christmas shopping earlier in the season. At the time, labor laws were still fairly lax and the laws which were on the books weren’t well enforced. Those who suffered the most during the holiday season were children and retail workers. Businesses, especially large department stores, frequently forced their employees to work overtime in the month of December, often without overtime pay.


As a result, in 1903 Florence Kelley, co-founder of the NAACP, published her essay "The Travesty of Christmas". She describes the exploitation of workers, especially children, during the holidays and she urges people to get their shopping done earlier in the season to help the overworked retail employees whom the government was allowing to be exploited. In her essay, Kelley recounts the tragic story of a boy in New York who died from exposure after a 19-hour shift delivering Christmas gifts. The National Consumers League, founded by Kelley, distributed tens of thousands of posters throughout the country every year to promote their "Shop Early" campaign.


From the "Shop Early" campaign, Library of Congress

In addition to shopping early, Kelley recommended that anyone ordering gifts through a delivery service specifically request an older delivery boy, to put pressure on companies to stop overworking their youngest employees.


Part of the problem with businesses overworking retail employees was the increasingly widespread use of electric lighting. Stores could stay open longer and the job of closing up shop or opening in the morning could be lengthened as a result. Kelley’s suggested solution was to do your shopping earlier in the day so stores wouldn’t be tempted to stay open too long into the evening.


In this vein, I think everyone should do their Christmas shopping this year ASAP, and avoid choosing rushed shipping, which would put more pressure on delivery workers and people in order fulfillment centers. I also think ordering from local companies and small businesses is important this year, both because it reduces the workload placed on delivery drivers and because it’s small businesses which are struggling most right now.


This year also isn’t the first time there’s been an increase in ordering gifts through the mail. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward founded Montgomery Ward Inc. and released the first mail-order catalogue. Initially, people were suspicious of the business model, which had no middle man or brick-and-mortar store, but it caught on. The catalogues gave people in rural areas more variety than they had in their local general stores. At first, people in cities could order by mail and have their purchase delivered to their homes for free, but in rural areas that convenience didn’t exist. To get your package, you either had to go to the post office, which may not be close to home, or you had to pay extra for home delivery. This led to Rural Free Delivery being mandated in 1893, which in turn resulted in legislation that improved rural road networks. I’m hoping this year’s increase in package delivery will lead to legislative changes as well, especially in regards to Amazon’s tax avoidance and the strain all these deliveries will put on e-commerce workers and delivery drivers.


I would like to mention that the bump in holiday shopping this year might not be as large as predicted, or it might be much larger depending on a number of factors. For one, people may be tempted to spend more on Christmas than in past years because it will be a bright spot in a bleak year. Some people might spend more on Christmas because they have a little extra money leftover from cancelled travel plans and a decreased spending on gas. However, plenty of people won’t be able to spend as much this year because of lost income. Those who have not suffered financially from the pandemic may still decide to save their money this year instead of spending it on Christmas gifts, just in case they do end up in dire straits in the coming months as a result of new layoffs. There are also all the people who have died who won’t be buying or receiving gifts this year, as well as people who survived the virus only to be overwhelmed by medical bills. While I recommend getting your shopping done early, I also recommend spending less on commercial gifts and more on helping out the people who really need it this year.