In Old Washington
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 22, 1907 [pt. 7, p. 5]
In the midst of the preparations for the holiday season in the stores and homes of Washington one who can recall the Christmas times of fifty or sixty years ago is apt to note the stupendous changes which have taken place. Then Washington had a population of less than forty thousand, about one-third colored, and houses so located as to suggest villages. A dozen or so of churches, four public schools and a few private schools had we, with five market houses. In the toy shops indications of the approaching Christmas season were seen a few weeks before those at the market, where were to be found evergreens, brought in baskets from the country, and a more varied display of cake, candy and toys, while the poultry-men displayed turkeys. In the shops the Christmas display was not made but a week or so before time, and sightseeing by the younger people was mostly at night. For the rule as to school days and hours then was: holidays on the Fourth of July, Christmas, New Year and the 22d of February, and the hours in winter 9 to 4 o'clock, in summer 8 to 5 o'clock.
While the day the greatest in Christian significance was observed in the Catholic, Episcopal and other churches and in families by reunions around the roasted turkey, Santa Claus reigned supreme wherever there were children. At many Christmas eve parties was this individual in evidence. In the west end and on English Hill were such parties customary. It is related that at one part at the corner of 3d and G streets stockings with the names of the guests were hung up and filled, one having been made for the purpose by a girl. The name attached was that of the girl's affianced, so the beau accepted the hint of the crowd and a wedding day was set. To make merry and be happy was the order of the day, some by drinking and others by making others happy in distributing gifts, and this was not always to relatives and acquaintances. The writer knows of one instance where an old gentleman, a long ways from his home and kindred, was regarded as a veritable Santa Claus. It was his custom to provide himself the day before Christmas with new coin, from the cent to half-dollar, and early in the morning to look up boys and girls whose appearance and actions indicated that for a small sum they would be as happy as their more favored companions. These he would call and question, hand them money and enjoy their surprise. To the father of some of them he stated that he would like to enjoy the holidays at his old home were it not that his family and children had passed away, and to do as he was doing was an investment which made the child, as well as himself, happy.
Christmas morning did not come too early for the youngsters for the presents. The boys despite the weather were soon in the streets and with pistols, fire crackers and toy cannon rendered sleep impossible. The fore part of the day was so industriously spent in the streets that regular breakfasts were forgotten, but with the refreshments served at many houses, there was no need of a regular meal. Though but a few years before much temperance work had been accomplished, Washington was not a dry city. Open house appeared the rule, hotels, taverns, and residences served eggnog, Tom and Jerry, hot Scotch, etc., and private families served the same with straight drinks from the decanter-graced sideboards. White and colored became merry early in the day and as a rule good humor prevailed with little disorder. The police, a mere handful of men, had comparatively little to do other than show themselves. Though the relations between the races were amicable through the year, at Christmas times the white and colored boys were on intimate terms. There were laws against the sale of fire-crackers, but as the oath of a colored person against a white man, uncorroborated, was not taken, it was easy to obtain such by sending a colored boy to the stores.
Toys, of course, played their part in the festivities, but bore no comparison to those of the present age. There were no electric or steam contrivances then. The toys, in the main, were painted wood, tin and paper of foreign make, including, of course, dolls, wagons, jacks-in-the-box and cannon. A few books for children were just then coming into vogue.
This was about the time of the Mexican war and soldiers, cannon, horses and other insignia of war were in demand. Even the conventional horse cake was changed in shape to the mounted soldier and the cavalryman was commonly made of candy.
As a rule what few mechanical toys there were had springs for their motive power, for even dolls with moving eyes were not then known. Indeed, it may be said that Toyland was crude and limited in variety. While most of the toys were of foreign make, there were some made in this country. About this time there appeared a device made by a barber – a figure worked like a whirligig – and one invented by a tinner's apprentice, called the "hawk," which though not on sale, was made in hundreds and seemingly in less than a week every boy in the city had been provided. It was a contrivance of tin and a thin piece of wood, something like the mouthpiece of a clarinet, by which a most discordant sound could be made. A speaker or performer, instead of being hissed or hooted, would be greeted by the coarse note of the hawk, and its indiscriminate use soon caused complaint. The mayor, councils and police were appealed to, but whenever a hundred or so boys gathered to show their dislike to a local politician, the hawk would be blown. Capt. Goddard and his force tried kindness on the boys by quietly advising them to consider how they would feel if the crowd gathered at one of their doors, and in a little time the hawk was discarded.
Original Toy Shops
George Savage, on the north side of the avenue, west of 9th street, was best known to the boys for selling "the half dollar brass barreled pistol," and to the public as a zealous temperance advocate. This pistol was a leader in his stock of light hardware and varieties, in which in season were toy cannons, other pistols, some metal toys and also hobby horses, sleighs and wagons, with skates of wood with steel runners.
In the first ward Nicholas Funk on I street between 20th and 21st streets was in the toy business exclusively, and he was known all over that section of the city, and was the favorite of the young people. While his assortment embraced about everything in the toy line of that period, it was kept up by the introduction of the latest from other places. A new toy of the comic order reached him and so pleased his juvenile customers that he sold out in a few days and the wily old man in ordering more of them took care that the name of the maker should be erased from the boxes. Thus he secured a monopoly at least for that season.
The auction house of William Marshall on the north side of Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets was the scene of many toy auctions, as also private sales, and was quite as good as a place of amusement as for bargains. But when toy season was on hand almost every species of business – taverns, grocers, confectioners, fruit dealers, booksellers and music dealers took on a stock. In the neighborhood of the avenue, 9th and 10th streets, where Savage’s variety and Marshall’s auction house were located, was possibly the best supplied with Christmas things. George Norbeck’s and John T. Downs’ confectioneries, Mrs. Clitz's, Mrs. Claverdetacer's and Julius Vissers' fancy or variety stores were located on this square, toys being in evidence in season. Mrs. Norbeck, who was there half a century, was the purveyor for the children, who, thought that her candies, especially that in canes, better than wooden toys. On the square east was the store of J.H. Gibbs, with a fancy stock of perfumes and toys. Among the latter were many dolls, and here those with heads of hair first appeared. John Richey's fancy store on 9th street near D, was a well-known toy shop.
Able to Supply Anything
Other toy houses on 7th street were Mrs. Hillary's grocery and fancy store at the corner of L street; J.G.. weaver, confectioner, between I and K streets; Thomas Welsh, fruit dealer, between G and H streets; M. Talty and Edward Sweeney, fruit dealers, between C and D streets, and Charles Columbus, between D and E streets.
On Pennsylvania avenue there were H. Banes, confectioner; P. Crear and Flagg & Co., dealers in fancy goods, between 2d and 3d streets; William Grupe, confectioner; William Greason, fruit dealer, with James Fitzgerald&s tavern and fruit store, between 3d and 4-1/2 streets; George A. Knott, confectioner; Mrs. Moran, J. O&Leary and Isaac Newton, fruit dealers, between 4-1/2 and 6th streets. At the corner of 4-1/2 street the well-known Joseph Shillington, the agent for the Baltimore Sun, established a book and periodical store in the Odeon building, in season handling many gift books, including new juveniles.
John Miller, who was a confectioner at the northwest corner of 9th and F streets, on the site of the Masonic Temple, was more or less in the toy trade, and a few years afterward he was succeeded by the Eckharts. Thomas Haslup had a like establishment on 6th street near G street. On the south side of the avenue between 10th and 11th was Paul Kinchey, an old-time but up-to-date confectioner and caterer, and there was no better-known place for toys, especially imported ones, than in his shop.
The music store of Richard Davis, then on the south side of the avenue between 10th and 11th streets, also carried a line of fancy goods and many toys, musical and otherwise, in season. A store of like character was then kept by William G. Fischer on the north side of the avenue between 11th and 12th streets. For holidays music boxes were a specialty with boys, as were drums. On the site of The Star office, at 11th street, was located C. Gautin, a leading French confectioner and caterer, whose store attracted particularly the society people and his countrymen. In addition to his own manufactures he carried some fancy articles and select toys. Adjoining the Misses Pilling had a fancy goods store, and numerous articles suitable for presents were to be found there. The same can be said of Mme. Delarue's place, near 13th street. Joseph Beardsley, confectioner, had a crowded store of all kinds of toys, and at Harry Kuhl's confectionery and refectory fruits, confections and liquors had a reinforcement of toys at the holiday time. On the site of the post office was the old Seufferle place, occupied by Jacob Aigler, confectioner, who, with Mrs. Keppler's little store, near 11th and C streets, well supplied toys, etc., to the section south.
Confectioners and Others
M. & C. Briel, confectioners, were then on 6th street between F and G streets, afterward on 9th street between D and E, and were known far and wide for candy toys which took the form of baskets, canes and fancy designs, their stands in the markets being popular. McCafferty's confectioner shop on E street between 8th and 9th enjoyed the neighborhood Christmas trade, and afterward was located with a variety store, at 6th and E streets.
The toy trade at the West End was not confined to Funk, before mentioned, for such trade was included with that of A. Favier, confectioner and caterer, on 19th street below Pennsylvania avenue; John Glenn and J. Brodbeck, between 17th and 18th streets; Mrs. Robinson and William Norbeck, between 19th and 20th streets, all avenue confectioners; John Chapman, variety dealer, etc., and M. Cavanaugh, fruit dealer, 20th street and the avenue. As a rule the little shops scattered through the ward carried small stocks of toys.
The Navy Yard section had the reputation then, as after, of being the abode of the most neighborly people in Washington. Garrison street, as 8th street southeast was called, was the great thoroughfare, and as a rule Christmas was celebrated with great éclat. With the exception of Mrs. Capt. Alec Bulley's variety and toy store, on Virginia avenue west of 8th street, the toy trade was conducted on Garrison street, and the principal stores were those of Mrs. Sarah O'Donnell, Mrs. Christopher O'Neal, William Elder, opposite the marine barracks; Francis Elewell, between I and K streets; Robert Padgett, Miss Sarah Westcott and Mr. Jeffries, on the corners of 8th and L streets.
Down on the Island
As before stated,, open house was the rule with the old families, particularly with those from the south, and lavish was the hospitality, especially of the public men. Few of these other than members of the cabinet and government officials were keeping house, the members of the Senate and House being here for the session only. Of the cabinet, Robert J. Walker, Secretary of the Treasury resided in the Seven Buildings, in the avenue and 19th street, where the custom of the southland, an open house, prevailed, and all who called had a hearty welcome. Cave Johnson of Tennessee, Postmaster General, entertained all callers at his home on G street between 10th and 11th streets, and John G. mason, the Attorney General, followed the old Virginia custom on Virginia avenue between 7th and 8th streets. And to a greater or less degree their example was followed by other officers of the government. While it was understood that the open hand would be extended to all callers, there were not near so many as those at New Year, for Christmas day was reckoned as a day for the family, kindred and intimates. Nevertheless, it was considered proper and a duty by subordinates to make a call on their chiefs. Some of the most popular of the old citizens, particularly those looking for preferment in the local campaigns, emulated the national characters, and it is said that, in quantity at least, their refreshments surpassed those served by heads of departments. An old resident of the West End is authority for the statement that one of these characters arranged to entertain his callers with a dance, and prepared his favorite drink, apple toddy, in a large washtub. One of the guests in skylarking received a push and fell into it. The informant is silent as to whether it was used.
Though in the churches there were Christian services, the Santa Claus festivals of the Sunday schools were few, in fact, these were just coming in vogue.