By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 22, 1909 [p. 17]
About this time, sixty years ago, the people of Washington, then numbering less than 40,000 – one-third colored, free and slave – were actively preparing for Christmas, while the political world was interest in the memorable contest for Speaker of the House which resulted in the election of Howell Cobb of Georgia. This delayed until Christmas eve the delivery of the message of President Taylor, which the country was anxiously awaiting.
Nevertheless, in the old-time way, the holiday preparations went on in every section. Before the day arrived the stores and shops made attractive displays of goods and in the residential sections there was evidence of good cheer in the air – delicious odors from the kitchens – where mince pie, cakes, etc., were being provided – for few families bought their mince pies, most of them following the "receipts" handed down by their forbears. Department stores were unknown, the nearest approach being a combination of baker, confectioner and toy dealer, and some small variety stores with a few of general supplies.
The markets then were "sheds" – the Center, Western, Navy Yard and Northern – but they grew in attractiveness and attendance as the day approached. The decorations were few and simple compared with those of today. The dealers paid most attention to making their goods sell themselves to making their goods sell themselves by their attractive form and not to dressing their stalls.
The city of perhaps 6,000 houses sustained the reputation for "magnificent distances"; few of the streets had been improved; the use of gas was only in the larger buildings and on a few avenues and streets, facilities for travel were limited to hacks and a few omnibuses on the Avenue; small change was made by "fips" and "Levies," 6-1/4 and 12-1/2 cents – and in short in a very different age it seems now that the Washingtonians were living.
Nevertheless the holidays were days of enjoyment for which extra preparations were made and the spirit of good will was manifest.
Roast Beef and Possum
There was a very limited trade in Christmas trees, holly and greens, for the former could be had for the cutting withint he city limits, and one had but a short distance to go for all such "material" on Chisum's and Red Bird hills, south of the Soldiers' Home, and in its vicinity the boys found a supply for their mothers. Most of the ornaments – wreaths, crosses, stars and festoons – were then made at home, but since the abolition of slavery, many of the former servants have engaged in such work.
In the churches and in some families flowers and vines were used. The mistle-toe was much sought after for parties, and the few florists here were kept busy. Douglas Brothers, at 15th and G streets; George McLeod, who had succeeded to the Buist gardens, on H street, between 11th and 12th streets; Pierce and Cammack, on 14th street, and others had a big list of customers.
Toys of much more simple character than are the present styles were in vogue, and were an addition to the stock carried by confectionery and fancy stores, and to even the grocery and liquor stores. Every year Frank Colclazer, a confectioner on 7th street, had a toy depot on Louisiana avenue east of 7th street; Mrs. Ailer on 7th street above H street; Mrs. Kepplar, 11th and C streets; James O'Meara, on Pennsylvania avenue, near 2d street, were prominent in the toy business. The business was also engaged in by auctioneers, Green & Tastet, on the Avenue east of 7th street; Dyer & Brother, 10th and D streets, and others keeping them in stock. George Savage's variety store, Pennsylvania avenue, near 9th street, and John W. Badens, hardware dealer, carried metal toy stock.
Holiday books were a specialty in the stationery stores. At Joe Shillington's in the Odion building, 4-1/2 street and Pennsylvania avenue, many children's books were on sale and the store in which Calhoun, Clay, Webster and Benton often met and passed time was overrun by boys and girls. Frank Taylor, on the avenue between 4-1/2 and 6th streets, carried gift books in profusion. W.M. Morrison's specialty at his store west of 4-1/2 street was law books, but he sold holiday books at auction. Taylor & Maury, between 9th and 10th streets; W.F. Bayley and Garrett Anderson, between 11th and 12th streets; Robert Farnham, 11th street, also provided presentation books. G. Brooke, near 15th street and Pennsylvania, carried a line of books and fancy goods; James Nourse, corner of 10th and E streets, carried religious books and papers, and Austin Gray, on 7th near H street, a similar stock.
Confectionery Stores Numerous
In the first ward, A Favier, on 19th street, south of Pennsylvania avenue, owned the leading confectionery in the West End. Royal C. Miller on 7th street near the Avenue; J.G. Weaver, on 7th street above I street; Mrs. Johnston, 15th street, south of F street, George A. Knott, on Pennsylvania avenue, between 4-1/2 and 6th streets; Dennis Collins near the ruins of the National Theater; M. Briel, 7th street near G street; T.H. Sheckells, at 6th and I streets; John Schneider and John Locke, 7th street, above L street; B.A. Miller, 6th street, between H and I streets; John Killian, on F street near 12th, and Jacob Aigler on the avenue near 12th, were also in the business. Henry Eckhardt, then at 9th and F streets, kept a popular confectionery, especially noted for his mammoth cakes, containing gold rings. On the Avenue in a diminutive store, George Norbeck ran a surprisingly large confectionery business and the holiday season candles and toys were found there in profusion. Mrs. Beardley's stock, between 12th and 13th streets, drew much custom.
Of bakers there were John Kraft, corner 12th and F streets; Andrew Noerr, 11th and E streets; George Seitz, 10th street and New York avenue; Lew Tarleton, E street between 9th and 10th streets; John Crutchet, F street west on 13th street; T. Stephenson, near 15th and F streets; J.C. McKelden, 7th street below E street; Havenner & Bro., on the present location, C street between 4-1/2 and 6th streets; David Horner, F between 2d and 3d streets, with others.
There were many fancy and variety stores where the Christmas spirit was evident. These included Bastanelli's, on Pennsylvania avenue below 7th street; Pulvermacher’s, on square east; Selby Parker's, J.H. Gibbs', Julius Visser and Claverdelcher's, between 9th and 10th streets; Misses Pilling, on site now occupied by Galt's, Mme. Delarues, between 12th and 13th streets, and others.
There were also small shops conducted by women, among whom may be mentioned Mrs. Hillary, at 7th and L streets; Mrs. Henry, 9th between I and K streets; Mrs. Davey, 14th and F streets, with others, each having the custom of young people. One such, on G street, near the Epiphany Church, was popularly known as "Old Mammy Jones' taffy shop." A stalwart colored woman, an expert at taffy making, conducted the place.
Known as Good Samaritan
Near the corner of 14th and H streets Lethe Tanner, colored, kept a variety shop, mainly patronized by the John F. Cook School boys. In the holiday season all ill-feeling between the races disappeared, and the little shop was well patronized.
The china and glass stores were those of Thomas Purcell on Pennsylvania avenue, opposite the then Indian Queen, now Metropolitan Hotel, and Charles S. Fowler in Odd Fellows' Hall. The hat and furnishing stores of William B. Todd and M.H. Stevens & Co., on Pennsylvania avenue, between 6th and 7th streets, and John McGuire on the square east; the music stores of W.G. Fischer near The Star office and Richard Davis on the avenue between 10th and 11th streets, made a specialty of holiday goods.
There was a law against the firing of guns and pistols within 200 yards, or firecrackers within 100 yards of any building, and one forbidding bonfires, as well as other police regulations. The sale of liquor at bars was prohibited between 10 o’clock p.m. and 4 o’clock a.m. and Sundays; and slaves and apprentices were not to be given liquor, nor were drinks allowed to be served in any shop. The enforcement of these provisions was under two police constables in each of six wards and one in the seventh ward, and by the auxiliary guard and "night watch" of fifteen men under Capt. John H. Goddard. The constables by public notice several days before Christmas stated that they would enforce the law to the letter.
A great revival along total abstinence lines had taken place a few years before and there were half a dozen temperance organizations, besides those in connect with the Catholic churches; and the great temperance apostle, Father Mathew, was holding temperance meetings in the Catholic churches, while Rev. C.W. Dennison, Mr. Savage, Ulysses Ward, Squire Clark and others were laboring at Temperance Hall and other places.
Booth as Richard the Third
The building about 1839 – occupied partly as the armory of the Washington Light Infantry – was destroyed by fire and business houses took its place.
At the little Odeon building, on the northwest corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 4-1/2 street, the troupe of Nightingale Ethiopian serenaders was giving nightly entertainments of negro ministrelsy with much success. Dr. Baynes' panorama of a voyaged to Europe was shown at Odd Fellows Hall and church fairs were held or planned at other places. For the numerous other projected entertainments and parties Weber and Pons, Schenig and Lloyd Williams were offering entertainers, the latter having a large band of colored musicians.