Christmas a century ago: Shopping was local and church was central

— Photo from Guilderland Historical Society

One year, McKownville Methodist Church’s Sunday school party opened with a pageant presented by the children, followed by a visit from Santa, a Christmas tree, gifts, candy, and ice cream. All that and the Children’s Fairy was to visit as well. Everyone was cordially invited to remain after the program for the social hour. Another year, there was simply a Christmas party at the church when there was an invitation for “all children of the community.” There was much activity in all of the town’s churches during the Christmas season.

Black Friday deals early in November, blow-up Santas on lawns within days of Halloween, and some store decorations on display as early as September — Christmas or the “holiday” season seems to begin earlier each year. A look back at Christmas a century ago tells a different story.

In issues of The Enterprise from 1921 to 1923, the only mention of Christmas before Thanksgiving was advance publicity for sales of Christmas seals which were to be used in addition to postage stamps on Christmas cards or on wrappings of Christmas packages.

An idea adopted from Denmark in l907, the funds raised from their sales across the nation were used for the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, a dread disease that killed 100,000 Americans annually in that era. Money raised in Albany County was used within the county for visiting nurses and a sanatorium in the Pine Hills section of Albany.



Gift giving had long been a Christmas custom, but by the 1920s commercialization had begun creeping in with retailers promoting a wide variety of choices.

Christmas advertising was a bonanza for newspapers in that era with The Enterprise running ads from smaller Albany and Schenectady specialty shops and Schenectady department stores. Ads from Albany department stores were missing, perhaps because they felt people here would have already seen their offerings listed in the Albany papers.

Now that there was bus service from Guilderland to Schenectady plus private automobiles, Schenectady stores seemed to be making a serious effort to attract Guilderland area customers.

During these years, usually The Enterprise issue of the second week in December featured a page-one decorative Christmas illustration with a lengthy story publicizing all their advertisers, urging readers to patronize them. Throughout the paper, regular community news columns were interspersed with numerous ads, Christmas-themed illustrations, stories, and the occasional poem.

Schenectady’s big three department stores — Wallace Co., Carl Co. and H.S. Barney, “where everybody shops” — usually ran half-page ads familiarizing potential customers with the wide variety of gifts available. Additionally, they offered amenities such as restrooms and restaurants.

Carl Co. would reimburse carfare if you spent $20 or more in their store (a 1921-23 dollar equals $17 to $18 today), while Wallace’s would deliver your purchases for free. All of them stayed open a few specific nights before Christmas for shoppers’ convenience.

For the more budget-minded, Lurie’s, “The Store of Today and Tomorrow,” was the “Big Economy Store” in Schenectady.

Department-store basements were stocked with toys popular in that day with action toys for boys like trucks, Daisy air rifles, velocipedes (tricycles), circus vans, Lionel train sets, Noah’s arks, and bowling alleys among the choices. Girls were pointed in the direction of domesticity with toy ranges, carpet sweepers, laundry sets, doll furniture, dolls and doll carriages as their selections.

Even though the first store Santa appeared in New England in 1890, only Wallace’s advertised a Santa in its toy department “to greet children and listen to their wishes.”  And for children too old for toys, City Savings Bank of Albany suggested opening a savings account in their name with a first deposit.

Price ranges for toys were sometimes printed, ranging from under a dollar for a few things such as Camp Fire Girls books for 25 cents each to Lionel train sets as high as $25.

Smaller Albany and Schenectady specialty shops offered clothing, leather goods, rubber products, fountain pens, Victrolas, umbrellas, and luggage — just a few of the items advertised. John B. Hauf of Albany suggested making it “a furniture Christmas” while Perkins Silk Shop informed prospective customers, “lingerie material is always acceptable as Xmas gifts.” The Municipal Gas Company pushed husbands to buy their wives “an easy electric washer” to “make her happy Christmas morning.”

Few town stores advertised Christmas gifts with some exceptions. Altamont Pharmacy could provide the shopper with “Xmas Presents Acceptable to All Members of the Family” including electric tree lights for $4, Kodak cameras, candy, stationery, as well as electric flat irons and a vacuum cleaner for $50.

Fredendall’s Furniture Store had “Shopping Hints for Christmas Gifts” with suggestions of various pieces of furniture. M.B. Keenholts offered a variety including Christmas cards, decorative paper items, candy including ribbon candy and candy canes as well as the usual cigars and newspapers. And oddly, he also had select oysters should you want them.

Don’t forget The Altamont Enterprise, suggesting a year’s subscription for $1.50 would make a perfect gift, especially for a friend or relative out of town.

No Cyber Monday? No UPS, FedEx, Prime? A century ago, at-home shoppers would reach for “The Thrift Book of the Nation,” their Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog; fill out the order form; write out a check or more likely get a money order at their local Post Office; and wait for their mailman to deliver their package to their house unless they had a Post Office Box and had to pick it up themselves.



The poor in Albany weren’t forgotten. Various churches, either as a whole or one of their organizations, collected money or donations of food, clothing, and toys to be sent into the city.

St. John’s Lutheran Church sent a large amount of food, clothing, and toys to C.R. Story Mission while Altamont Reformed Church’s Laurel Band group packed a Christmas box to be sent to the City Mission in Albany.

In Guilderland Center, the Reformed Church requested apples and jelly to be sent to Dr. and Mrs. Griffin of Albany for their excellent work among the poor.

Each year, there were similar collections. Anything done for families or individuals in Guilderland who were having a rough time of it would have been done privately if at all.


Children celebrate

For the town’s children, Christmas was likely to be the most exciting time of the year with parties at school and Sunday school often with visits from Santa, refreshments, and gifts. Often these were combined with some kind of performances by the children — singing, reciting, and acting in plays with the public invited.

At Guilderland Center’s Cobblestone School, Mrs. Witherwax’s students “presented a pleasing program of Christmas songs, recitations, and exercises.” Afterward, there was a “merry Christmas party” when she presented gifts to the students from under the branches of the decorated Christmas tree in the corner of the room.

These school Christmas programs open to the community were common, sometimes combined with a party, other times strictly performances with class parties back in their classrooms. This was the case with Altamont High School where all grades from primary through high school offered an evening performance for families and friends of the school.

Not only did it seem that teachers gave children small gifts, but teachers received gifts from their students. Mrs. Witherwax went home one year with a clothes basket of gifts while Miss Lucy Osborn, the teacher at Dunnsville’s school, received a “fine hardwood rocking chair” from her “scholars.”

Occasionally these public Christmas programs were presented at local churches as when the Parkers Corners school children offered their community Christmas program at the Parkers Corners Methodist Church.

In Guilderland, the public-school classes combined with the Federated Sunday School classes to present a community program at the Guilderland Methodist Church. Afterward, Santa arrived with candy and oranges for all the children while Sunday school teachers gave additional gifts to their own classes.

Children who attended the town’s Sunday schools usually put on programs of recitations, music, and stories for their own congregation in combination with a party following, a visit from Santa, and gifts from their Sunday school teachers.

Usually adults of the congregation were invited to view the performance and join in the party afterward. These performances were a method of informally teaching children about the real meaning of Christmas.


Church services

The town’s Protestant churches held their special Christmas service on the Sunday preceding December 25 unless as happened in 1921 when Christmas was actually on a Sunday.

Whatever the actual day of Christmas, during their Christmas service choirs sang, sometimes there was inclusion of Sunday school children singing a carol or giving a recitation, and also a Christmas sermon given by the minister, making it a special Sunday.

Helderberg Reformed Church had just purchased a new organ and its special Christmas service began with an organ recital. Sometimes on Christmas Eve or Christmas night a church may have held a special service also.

A special vesper service, held in Altamont’s Reformed Church for their Sunday school centered around “White Gifts for the King,” when each Sunday school class brought up gifts of toys, clothing, and other articles including money to be distributed to the poor.

And new in 1923 was the announcement, “Christmas Masses.” Rev. Walter T. Bazaar would be offering Mass at 7 a.m. at St. Lucy’s on Christmas morning before turning around to return to Voorheesville to offer two additional masses at St. Matthew’s.



By 1923, technology made its appearance with The Enterprise listing Christmas radio programs offered on Schenectady’s WGY, the variety including a broadcast of the service at St. Peter’s Church in Albany and the WGY Players acting in the Christmas-themed play “The Fool.”

During these years, Guilderland Center had a civic group that put on a community Christmas party at the “Town Hall,” a building on the community’s Main Street, owned by the town of Guilderland, which had a large meeting room used for community events.

Everyone in Guilderland Center and the nearby area was invited. The evening began with a “cafeteria” supper — one year oysters made up the main course — with games for the children who also usually repeated the program they had performed earlier at the Cobblestone School.

There was an electrically lighted Christmas tree and sooner or later Santa showed up with gifts for the children. Finally, the evening ended with dancing for the adults. This gathering occurred during the week after Christmas.

For those who were grieving recent loss, deeply depressed, in bad economic straits, or an unbeliever, December must have been a difficult month; but for the great majority of Guilderland’s residents, Christmas seemed to be a wonderful, community-oriented time of the year — a century with real spiritual meaning for a great number of them.