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Baltimore and the birth of Christmas shopping

If you’re pining for the primordial days when Christmas wasn’t so commercial, consider this: By the late 1800s, Christmas shopping was big business in Baltimore. And the Baltimore Sun was its cheerleader.

An 1895 editorial in The Sun described Christmas shopping as “trade converted into poetry… buying and selling set to music.” The holiday displays downtown, some lit with electric lights, were “as gorgeous with colors and replete with novelties as the fabled bazars [sic] of Baghdad.”

But unlike the ancient Baghdad marketplace, the notion of Christmas shopping was new to American life. It was only in 1870 that President Ulysses Grant made Christmas a federal holiday, in what observers say was an effort to unite North and South following the Civil War. Against this backdrop, gift giving and receiving seems to have taken on widespread social importance.

“Through personal gifts, Americans mediated the fragile relationships of an increasingly fragmented society,” wrote Penne Restad, author of “Christmas in America: A History.”

Given Baltimore’s divisions and population changes, the postwar sense of fragmentation was probably especially acute. So, too, perhaps, was the impulse to buy Christmas presents.

Or perhaps local business owners simply sensed a sales opportunity. In any case, from the 1880s onward, retailers clamored for Christmas business in the Baltimore Sun’s advertising pages.

Iron toys, tin toys, dressed dolls and the like could be found at a number of shops on Lexington Street. Milliken’s Linen Store, located on West Baltimore Street, enticed readers with mufflers and monogrammed handkerchiefs, presented in “fancy boxes.” Habliston’s Pharmacy advertised “fancy soaps” and “popular perfumes” at “reasonable prices.” “Call and see for yourself, reader, before purchasing elsewhere,” read an ad from 1876.

In December of 1886, the streets of Baltimore were so full of women carrying Christmas parcels that the Baltimore Sun cautioned the drivers of streetcars to allow them extra time to find their footing, lest the overburdened women go tumbling. “Several accidents of this kind have happened already.”

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