Friday, December 26, 2014

Snippets of Christmas past

Screengrab of vintage line drawing of Santa coming out of the chimney
A look at Santa as he appeared in the Dec. 23, 1896
issue of the Ocala Evening Star newspaper.
Credit: Library of Congress's Chronicling America website
We may like to think Christmas of yesteryear was quieter, simpler, and perhaps more solemn than today's hectic festivities. In some ways, that may be true. In others, not so much. At least not in pioneer Florida. Else, the editor of The Gulf Coast Breeze (Crawfordville) wouldn't have felt the need to issue this caution in the paper's Christmas Eve edition in 1897:

"Christmas being the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to proclaim peace on earth and good will toward men, the day should be observed in all christian lands in strict accordance with that sentiment, and never as a day of drunken revelry and carousal."

Two years earlier, in 1895, the Bradford County Telegraph (Starke) spoke of the "festivities, the hilarities, the family greetings of earthly Christmas ..." in an editorial comment about how earthly celebrations will give way to "the great holiday of heaven."

Despite the emphasis on the holiday's religious significance in these two examples, some denominations were strangely quiet on Christmas in late 19th century Florida. At least in Ocala. The Dec. 26, 1895 edition of the Ocala Evening Star offered a recap of Christmas Day services. The content is worth quoting, for it surprised me:
  • "The Baptists had no exercises at the church." 
  • "The Methodist church had no Christmas exercises."
  • "At the Catholic church the decorations were very pretty and the services beautiful and solemn."
  • "The Episcopal church was nicely decorated in evergreens for the occasion, and the usual Christmas exercises were rendered, which were very beautiful and forcible."
  • "No services were held at the Presbyterian or Christian churches."
  • "Several Christmas trees were held among the colored churches."
I'm not sure what type of celebration is referenced by the Christmas trees being "held." If anyone knows, please add a comment. 

Although the Baptists didn't have a service on Christmas Day, the church youth presented a children's cantata on Christmas evening at the Baptist hall. The same Dec. 26, 1895 issue of the newspaper had a few lines about the event, and reported that the hall was "beautifully decorated with evergreens, and the nicely arranged tree was groaning under its load of presents for the children." 

The 1890s Florida newspapers carried no shortage of ads for Christmas gifts. Just like today, the ads ranged from the simple to the loud. Examples from the Ocala Evening Star editions of Dec. 12, 17, and 20, 1895:
  • "Embroidery done to order at reasonable rates for Christmas. Cottage east of armory building."
  • "You can make twelve elegant Xmas presents to twelve of your relatives and best friends by sitting NOW for a dozen of Gottlieb's unexcelled photographs. Studio opposite Montezuma."
  • "My Christmas Slippers fit easy feet, fit hard feet, fit every taste and every pocket and are just the thing for a present. J.A. Rowell."
Economic indicators were closely watched, then as now. On Dec. 27, 1898, the Ocala Evening Star ran an article by a reporter who had canvased numerous merchants about holiday shopping. With one exception, all the merchants said business had been better than the year before. The drug store had sold out of holiday goods, and the candy store did a "huge business," 40 percent higher than the year before. As a side note, I noticed that the confectioner had run a large print ad for Whitman's Chocolates in the newspaper a few days earlier.

The sampling of vintage newspapers showed me more similarities than differences in the season, with one glaring exception. On Dec. 23, 1898, the Ocala Evening Star carried an article about holiday travel. The railroads had lowered rates for the season. On the Southern Railway, patrons paid one-third of normal fare for the return leg of a round trip. The Plant System's "Holiday Excursion Rates" advertised one-way fare for a full round trip. Granted, the Plant offer was good only in Florida, and the Southern Railway's deal covered only the Southeast. But, still. Imagine booking a flight for the holidays and seeing such a bargain pop up in your browser. What a ghost of Christmas past that would be.

The newspapers referenced in this post are from the Library of Congress's excellent Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers website. If you are a fan of old newspapers, you could spend hours there.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hair: The long and short of it

People sitting on porch steps at Leon Hotel, Tallahassee, circa 1886
Notice how all the women wear their hair up in this c. 1886 photo of Leon
 Hotel in Tallahassee. Photo is by Alvin S. Harper and appears on page 40 of
Victorian Florida, America's Last Frontier, by Floyd and Marion Rinhart
Women today fashion their hair in myriad shapes, styles, lengths, and colors. We take for granted all the options and the ability to choose from among them. Contrast that to the late 19th century. Women had one choice for hair length: long. They had one choice for styling: up. Only girls and young women not yet out in society wore their hair in a loose, flowing manner.

The evidence is obvious in old photographs from Florida's frontier years. Every woman, from backwoods denizens to wealthy winter tourists, exhibits swept-up long hair. The poorer women didn't make a fuss over it. They parted their hair in the middle and twisted it into some kind of bun, or pulled it back without any visible part and pinned it atop or behind their head. The tourists display fashion trends, such as frizzed bangs in the late 1880s. Why anyone would deliberately frizz their hair is beyond me, but that style was a fad for a while. By the mid 1890s, the small topknot was the height of fashion. Such a style worked well for those with abundant hair. Otherwise, the results could appear comical.

One thing that connects past and present is the amount of time, care, and attention women lavish on their hair. But after reviewing, for example, Mark Campbell's 1867 book, Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description, I give thanks for modern haircare products. Campbell called his book an "indispensable adjunct to every lady's toilet table," because it promised to help a woman dress her own hair and become proficient in the making of hair work. Hair work meant items such as braids, which functioned much the way today's hair extensions do. 

The book's directions are occasionally nightmarish. Even the easiest pattern in Campbell's book calls for the artisan to braid the hair extension over a wire, boil it, place the braided piece in a hot oven - be careful not to burn it! - and then remove the wire, insert a pliable cord in its place, sew the end of the braid together and dab it with a dose of shellac. You can read the book online on the awesome Project Gutenberg site if you want to learn more.

More accessible is Dorothy Quigley's 1897 What Dress Makes of Us, also available on the Project Gutenberg site. She offered readers valuable advice for how to select a hairstyle based on the shape of the face. She urges women not to be a slave to fashion: "A wise woman will adopt a prevailing mode with discretion, for, what may be essentially appropriate for one, may be fatally inappropriate for another," she wrote. Wise words, that still hold true today.

Here are a couple of links to fashionable coiffures of the late 1800s: