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New York City Holiday Shopping: Online Artifacts from the Gilded Age

(revised 2015) Several commentators in the popular press compare our own time to the Gilded Age, a term for the late 19th century decades in the United States that were marked by rapid industrialization, economic development, financial havoc, and extreme inequality between the rich and the poor. New York City was one of the most important economic and social centers of the era, a city where the wealthy industrialists built their mansions in Beaux-Arts opulence while the newly-arrived immigrant families crowded together in confined tenement structures.

Between these two groups, an expanding middle class grew with the founding of new manufacturing, commercial, and retail businesses, enterprises that would depend upon consumer spending habits. The popularization and commercialization of the Christmas holiday also rapidly grew during the 1880s and 1890s, with an emphasis in the city on the festive presentation of store windows and special marketing. Here, then, are a few documents that provide a glimpse into the holidays in New York City during the Gilded Age.

I've added the bold type to emphasize geographical locations in the city.

"Broadway" by Richard Harding Davis. Illustrations by A. B. Frost.Scribner's magazine, Volume 9‬, by Edward Livermore Burlingame, Making of America Project. Charles Scribners Sons, 1891.

Broadway, south of Grace Church. 1891.
Farther ahead is Union Square and the beginning of the fashionable Ladies' Mile.

"The Broadway side of Union Square is its richest and most picturesque. The great jewelry and silver-shops begin here, and private carriages line the curb in quadruple perfection in any plate - glass window with a sufficiently dark background to throw a reflection.
This is the part of Broadway where one should walk just before the Christmas holidays, if one wants to see it at its very best; when the windows offer richer and costlier bids to those of better taste than at any other season ; and when the women whom one passes have a thoroughbred air of comfort and home about them, and do not look as though they were altogether dependent on the street and shops for their entertainment. Those you meet further up look as though they regarded Broadway not as a straight line between two points, not as a thoroughfare, but as a promenade. But in the lower part there are groups of distinguished - looking women and beautiful girls with bunches of flowers at their waists, and a certain affectation of manishness in their dress that only makes their faces more feminine by contrast. "They carry themselves well," would be the first criticism of a stranger, and they have a frank look of interest in what is going on about them which could even be mistaken for boldness, but which really tends to show how certain of themselves they are."

"New York City - What to See and How to See it.—Fourteenth and Grand Streets at Christmas Time." from The Weekly Statement, 1885, by The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Vol. I. No. 19. Office: Nassau, Cedar and Liberty Streets. December 23, 1885. This selection includes a glimpse of Grand Street, then a province of new immigrants.

"The streets of a great city always full of novel and interesting sights are doubly so at the commencement of the holiday season. 
Shopping for Christmas begins about the first of December, although the manufacturers and merchants have been preparing for it for months beforehand. During the last week in November many of the shop windows are carefully shaded by blinds to conceal the preparations going on inside for a grand display in December. Some of these spectacular displays are really magnificent exhibitions of mechanical skill and artistic beauty. One of the largest "notion" stores in the city, on Fourteenth street and Sixth avenue, has made its window exhibition at Christmas time a display of such exceeding beauty and wonder that children are brought for miles to see it, and early or late, wet or fine, a crowd of happy little ones, held in their mothers' or nurses' arms, may be found clapping their hands and exclaiming with joy at this bit of doll wonderland. 
...The street is crowded with venders of Christmas cards "cheap," boughs of holly, branches of red bitter-sweet, wreaths, crosses and stars made of cedar, spruce and ground-pine brought from distant forests. They are sold by the dozens and yard, and the making of them has become an important business in many rural communities." 
"Grand street is the great shopping street of East New Yorkers and Williamsburghers. It is not grand in the construction of its buildings, nor in the magnificence of their contents, but in the display of cheap old-fashioned goods, and the grand army of human beings from every part of the world that congregate on its side-walks.
...
The children in this quarter are also of a far different class from those uptown. Very few of these can boast of a white-aproned nurse; the babies are taken out to see the sights by sisters or brothers hardly older than themselves, and many of them never owned a pair of stockings to hang up for Santa Claus to fill. They know nothing of Christmas trees, except of the one at the Mission or those they see in the shop windows. 
... The corner of Third avenue is the best starting-point for a visit to Grand street, the most interesting part of which extends East from Third avenue for several blocks, and the Third or Fourth avenue horse cars or the Third avenue Elevated railroad will take one there, from either up or down town."
The Vanderbilt Mansions, from Illustrated New York: The Metropolis of To-Day (1888)

The area north of Madison Square Park was a highly-desired residential neighborhood for wealthy New Yorkers of the 1880s. The nearby shopping district, Ladies' Mile, catered to these patrons. 

Harper & Brothers' Holiday Books for 1885, The Critic, Volume 4



The Grant Memoirs Published, from The Critic: an illustrated monthly review of literature, art, and life, Volume 7 By Jeannette Leonard Gilder, Joseph Benson Gilder. December 5, 1885. The sensational must-have book during the holidays in 1885 was Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, still considered one of the finest autobiographies in American history. Mark Twain served as the publisher of the memoirs, persuading the general to share his story. Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States earlier in the year (February 1885, Charles l. Webster and Company.)

The first of the two volumes of the 'Personal Memoirs of Gen US Grant' was issued on Tuesday last. Wednesday's Tribune contained the following account of the beginning of the distribution of the 300,000 copies which Messrs Charles L Webster & Co declare have been 'placed:' ------ 
There was a running to and fro of book agents throughout the land yesterday The invincible 10,000 who have been invading the privacy of the home circle to chant the praises of General Grant's book received the fruit of their months of labor. In all that time they have been walking and talking on faith and hope alone for no advances were made by the publishers whose terms have been 'Cash down on the day of publication for every book delivered.' During the last hours of the day there was a steady stream of agents coming from the publishers offices in Union Square and Nassau Street. The lesser ones had their bundles of books under their arms the greater had their orders on the warehouses in Fourteenth Street, Astor Place, Mercer Street and other places where thousands of copies are stored away. Few copies reached the subscribers, the majority of the agents taking their stock home and getting ready to sally forth to day.

'We have about 140 agents herein the city and Brooklyn said one ot the publishers yesterday and they have disposed of from 15,000 to 20,000 books. Some of them have sold from 1200 to 1500 each Some have only succeeded in working off three or four copies The average of the best men is from 150 to 200 copies. We tried at first to divide the territory up among them but had to give up that attempt finally and let them fight for it among themselves. The most of our agents are men and above the usual class because until to day they have not been able to realize a cent on their work. Thus it took a certain amount of staying power to carry a man through. Our experience has been that men make the best agents except for selling worthless trash. Then a woman can hold her ground where a man would be kicked out of doors.'

Calendar Shopping for the holidays, 1885. Selected text from The Critic. December 12, 1885. (Bold type added to highlight titles.) Calendars for the new year are popular in our own time, but they were also on the gift-giving lists of 1885. Several featured prominent American writers - James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Lowell and Alcott were still alive when the calendars were published; Emerson had died three years earlier.

"There is no dearth of calendars this winter 'with selections for every day in the year' 1886. Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin & Co announce that the new Lowell Calendar, containing a striking portrait of the distinguished poet, critic and diplomatist, is entirely exhausted. Their A. D. T. Whitney Calendar, however, is still obtainable. It has a Kate Greenaway design of four little girls in quaint costumes, in which scarlet, yellow and pink are tastefully mingled. A slender garland of flowers unites the four figures and encircles the red panel in which is placed the tablet of selections. A scarlet, gold and white ornament forms the top of the decorative panel. The ground is of curved gold lines."
...
The Schiller Calendar (Troy: H. B. Nims & Co.) is in the form of a circular Japanese fan, the tablet being near the handle. The colored design covers the fan. It gives a landscape, with a decorative design of medallion portraits of Schiller and some of his characters at the left. The medallions are united by a blue ribbon and large flowers are placed on the lower part of the landscape.
...
Cupid's Calendar for 1886 (Estes & Lauriat), with verses selected by Kate Sanborn, is in the form of a heart, with a colored cover showing a Cupid on a ground of blue sky, and a gold border with red hearts. The selections are judiciously made. A gold arrow at the top of the heart forms a bar to hang it up by.
...
The Temperance Calendar, published by the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association, as a colored design giving a portrait of Miss Frances E. Willard, and reproductions of two famous pictures, the ' Madonna deila Seggiola' and 'Saint Margaret with the Dragon.'" The motto of the calendar is 'We wage our peaceful war for God and home and native land.'
...
The Louisa M. Alcott Calendar (Roberts Bros.) is gracefully designed in a decorative style and printed in black, brown and tawny yellow. A portrait of Miss Alcott, a view of the one-arch bridge at Concord, and one of the Alcott residence, lend interest to the decorative side of the calendar, while the quotations from Miss Alcott's writings given on the cards make it valuable in a literary way. The design of the Emerson Calendar (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.) is the same as that of last year, though the selections are new. It shows good decorative use of New England floral growth. The designs are in harmonious colors on a gold ground. A portrait of Emerson has a pine tree for a background. The decorative border of yellow violets and the head-band of pansies are very effective. "
...

Typical Advertisement for the Holidays in the 1880s
The popular shopping district during New York's Gilded Age was Ladies' Mile,
the area northwest of Union Square. The company advertising at the top right of this page,
Arnold, Constable & Co. was one of NYC's first major department stores. The location on Broadway and 19th Street
is now ABC Carpet. Read more about Ladies' Mile in this post. Also, in 1885 Louis Tiffany (1848-1933) oversees a new company specializing in art glass, incorporating as the Tiffany Glass Company in December 1885.

Read the companion post on this website - Shopping Ladies' Mile in the Second Gilded Age: A Self-Guided Walk and Map.









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