Christmas in 1849
The Evening Star, December 25, 1909 [pt. 2, p. 1]
All Washington is observing the Christmas festival today With the church services in the morning and home celebrations scattered through the rest of daylight and evening hours, the holiday is passing quietly.
The general trend in the observance of Christmas for years past has seemed to be more and more significant of the spirit of "Peace on earth, good will to men."
A marked contrast to present-day practice is afforded by a glance through the years backward for a half century or more. In those not distant times the Christmas holiday closely resembled a Fourth of July, and not a "safe and sane" Fourth at that.
On the day before Christ, 1849, the four district and ten lower grade public schools were let out after half day sessions. These short sessions continued for a week after New Year. With few exceptions the private or pay schools were closed on December 23.
Lively were the stores on Christmas eve. At the toy and book auctions there were crowds, as also in the markets.
Young America was laying in their shooting crackers and other noise-making material to be had in nearly every grocery, variety store or shop, and most of them were open until midnight and several hours the following day.
Long before daylight began the fusillade by gun, pistol and cracker, the blowing of whistles and small horns, the beating of small drums and tin pans. Every conceivable instrument by which noise could be made was brought into action.
At the same time there were bonfires blazing in different parts of the city. The hubbub of the boys who were hunting for material added to the commotion.
Primitive were the instruments used. The old-fashioned horse pistol, some with flint lock, the half-dollar brass pistol and Colt's revolver, then known as the pepper box, were for shooting purposes. The firecracker was of small size; the cannon cracker was not then in use and the tin horns were mere trifles.
The services in the churches were not neglected. Those in the Catholic churches in the early hours of the morning were over by breakfast time. There were St. Patrick's Church, at 10th and F streets northwest, St. Peter's , 2nd and C streets southeast, St. Matthew's 15th and H streets, and St. Mary's (German), 5th near H street northwest.
The congregations spread over much territory and owing to but few streets having foot pavements many people used lanterns to guide them. In East Washington, near 4th and D streets southeast, Foundry, 14th and G streets northwest; Wesley, 5th and F streets northwest; McKendree, Massachusetts avenue, near 9th street northwest; Ryland, 10th and D streets southwest, and Union Methodist churches, the Christmas morning prayer meetings were held.
Later services were held in the Episcopal churches, Christ, G near 6th southeast, St. John's, 16th and H street northwest; Trinity, 5th near D northwest; Ascension, H between 9th and 10th streets northwest, and Epiphany, G street near 13th northwest. Also in Concordia Lutheran, at 20th and G streets northwest, St. Paul's Lutheran, H and 11th streets northwest, and in some others.
Day of Hilarity
Liquid refreshments were found in public and private houses in abundance, the custom of the decanter being kept on the sideboards being then in vogue. On Christmas day there were added bowls of eggnog, apple toddy, etc., with various kinds of straight liquors, wines and cordials.
Hotels, saloons and many stores as well as private residences kept "open house" for the day. There is little wonder that it required nerve to resist the allurement of the bowl or that the old central guardhouse was filled by men and youths gathered in by about thirty peace officers to sober up.
But it is a credit to the people of the day that nothing more than "plain drunk" was written on the police blotter then. Fortunately, too, there were but there accidents from firearms or fire crackers, and but one of them serious – the loss of a hand.
In the neighborhood of 6th and G streets southeast there was a fatal fire, four colored people being burned to death. The house of Philip Wells, colored hackman, took fire about 4 o’clock in the morning from a foul chimney and four lives were lost. This dampened the festivities in that section and some Christmas money went to the relief of the survivors.
But three railroad trains left from the old depot, 2d street and the Avenue. Five trips only were made by the Alexandria boats, and by the southern mail steamers. Some tri-weekly stage lines went to points in Maryland and Virginia.
There were few in attendance on Congress. Departmental people did not leave the city to spend the holidays at home, as the usual recess was not taken until December 24.
So, on Christmas, at the hotels and boarding houses and homes it was not rare to see many prominent characters joining in the festivities, helping to spread good feeling.
Gen. Sam Houston of Texas and W.R. King of Alabama were with the crowd about the Indian Queen or Brown's Hotel, now the Metropolitan. Willard's, opened by the late H.A. Willard two years before, was the winter home of several Congressmen, and a number of army and navy people were there.
At the National, under E.D. Willard, were Henry Clay of Kentucky, Senator Berrien of Georgia, and others. The Irving House, under Thomas, had Senators D.S. Dickson of New York, Senator Upham of Vermont and Senator W.J. Brown of Tennessee, the latter previously an assistant postmaster general, and others.
Hannibal Hamlin, afterward Vice President, was a guest at the St. Charles, at 3d street, conducted by W. Gilbert, who had succeeded Burden. Gadsby's Hotel was the home of a number of representatives, and north was the Temperance Hotel of Isaac Beers, patronized by the abstemious.
On Pennsylvania avenue between 3d and 4-1/2 streets the United States Hotel of E.H. Fuller entertained with others John Bell of Tennessee and the Potomac House of Mr. Jordan, Gen. Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, afterward presidential candidate.
Other Places of Enjoyment
This locality was then known as "Cattail row" from the fact that ten years before as the beds were thrown out of a burning house they were bursted and the contents, made of the wannquepine plumes or cattails, were spread by the winds over that part of the city.
There was Clements" Tavern, on 9th street below Louisiana avenue; John Foy"s Republican House, on D street between 9th and 10th streets; Conrad Finkman"s Franklin House and Andrew Hancock"s Bald Eagle House, on the Avenue between 12th and 13th streets; Ward"s Tavern at 12th and C streets; George Howard"s and Capt. Job Corson"s, near 11th street wharf; Democratic, Maryland avenue, near the Long bridge; Columbian, 8th and E streets, of J.H. Eberbach.
On the Avenue between 1st and 2d streets were the old Jackson Tavern, then kept by Patrick Moran, and H. Buckley's Tavern. Charles Kloman's Fountain Hotel was opposite Odd Fellows' Hall, and Fred Schwing's Green Mountain House south; G.R. Hendley's, 7th and E streets; P.W. Dorsey's Hotel, 7th and I streets; H. Deckman's Tavern, 7th and N streets; George Dilhis', 7th and New York avenue; Harry Sweeting's Virginia House, C street east of 6th street; "Jock" Douglas, Louisiana avenue, opposite 5th street; George Ruppel's, 6th street, above C street; Caspari's Congress Refectory, A and New Jersey avenue southeast; M. Crane, 7th and L streets southeast; William Quigley's Tavern and grocery, 7th between N and O streets northwest.
Noted among the restaurants was the Irving, at the southwest corner of the Avenue and 10th street, then kept by M.R. Coombs, for many years after of the Chesapeake saloon; W.F. Benter's Washington Hall, at the southwest corner of 6th street and the Avenue; Walker & Shad at the northwest corner, "Dug" West's Adelphi and Fred Williams, south side of the Avenue between 4-1/2 and 6th streets; F. Stutz, 11th street between E and F streets; H. Ridgway, 14th and the Avenue, and A. Gross, south; M. Doyle, 3d street and the Avenue; Mrs. Kreamer's Alhambra and A. Miller, on the Avenue between 14th and 15th; H. Kuhl's, Pennsylvania avenue near 13th street.
Some had more than a local reputation. There was James Filtzgerald's, now 325 Pennsylvania avenue, which had a good run of transient custom as well as local trade. It was destroyed by fire January 20, 1851, and the present five-story building, the first of that height in Washington, taking its place. Its erection was watched with much interest.
Billy Greason, one of the most popular men of the day, afterward at 13th and E streets, and Patrick Brennan were in the same business nearby. Each place had its coterie of celebrities.
On the west side of 7th street Michael Talty had a like business, as did John Reily and William Feeney, and their places were well patronized by all classes and friends entertained.
Christmas Joy Everywhere
Nor were the poor children, white or colored, bond or free, neglected. The disposition was that for the day at least all should enjoy themselves.
At that period there were so many here absent from their own kindred that they sought means to make others happy. About some of the hotels pennies and half-dimes were thrown to boys to scramble for.
Afternoon and night the public amusements, the performances at the Adelphi Theater, the minstrels at the Odeon and panorama at Odd Fellows' Hall, drew crowded houses. Aa number of parties took place and other than the fatal burning and the three accidents before noted the Christmas had passed quietly.
Better than all, as before stated, the arrests made were of drunks only, and the only physical troubles following were headaches of such and stomach aches of some children, excessive drinking and eating being the causes.