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Charleston Museum sets the scene for 20th century Christmas cheer

The More Things Change

Mary Scott Hardaway Nov 29, 2017 4:00 AM

It's the beginning of the 20th century, Christmas Eve in Charleston. The window panes are frosted over, stockings are hung with care — a grand Frasier Fir sits in the corner strung with, maybe an oyster shell garland, definitely homemade ornaments. The family gathers to sing a carol, say a prayer.

Tiny red candles are clipped into the tree's branches, lit one by one; inspired by President Franklin Pierce, who first decorates the White House tree in 1856, families across the country balance live flames in dry tree branches. A Jewish family down the street may be celebrating Hanukkah (depending on the Jewish calendar), a typically minor Jewish holiday which took on new weight for turn-of-the-20th century immigrants adjusting to American life and the burgeoning Christmas craze.

In a city with a large Jewish population and storied Jewish history — the first Jewish Reform movement in the United States originated in Charleston — there is a surprising dearth of Hanukkah related memorabilia in the Charleston Museum's storeroom. "Hanukah is really a 20th century incarnation," says historian and archivist Harlan Greene. Charleston Museum chief curator Grahame Long concurs, "Hanukkah here isn't like the massive commercialism of Christmas."

"Mid-19th century is when Christmas celebrations really start taking off," Long continues. "A lot of these things [artifacts] aren't that spectacular, I mean they haven't really changed that much." Standing in the museum's storeroom, Long pulls out delicate stockings, wooden pull toys, and elaborate light bulbs. So elaborate they're almost garish — huge santas, snowmen, even an elephant and Humpty Dumpty.

"Everyone wanted lights," says Long. Before the invention of light bulbs, there were the lovely and incredibly dangerous candles. "It got to the point where insurance companies by the 1860s were like, we're not covering you if your house burns down ... they called it a 'knowing risk,'" says Long. Thanks to Edison, General Electric, and President Grover Cleveland, the knowing risk got at least a little less risky. Many credit Cleveland with inspiring confidence in the new fangled concept of stringing electric lights around a tree; in 1895 he requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs. In the early 1900s, General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights; according to the Library of Congress, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost approxmiately $2,000 in today's dollars.

"We know they [string lights] were really expensive," says Long. "We look at these now as cheap but these were luxury items at the time ... electricity is still 50/50 at this point." Long holds up a tiny tool resembling a flattened wrench that would come in these GE kits, one that an ambitious pop or hired electricitian would use to wire up the multi-colored lights.

Courtesy Charleston Museum

Beneath the tree, Long says children would find wooden toys, and by the 1910s, more metal, wind-up, and automatic toys. Long says toys don't become a big marketing tool until post Civil War. "[The toys] were usually just homemade and around this time [late 19th century] in the newspapers we see ads for only one maybe two Charleston toy makers, who were cabinet makers that probably used wood scraps for the toys." And, pre-teen children from a century or two ago were not playing on their brand new iPads — they were out working. Toys were not the be all end all they are today.

Long winds up a still working circa-1875 metal drummer boy, points out a painted wooden duck on a string. "Pull toys are old," says Long, "The Romans are playing with pull toys. They don't look much different than this."

It wasn't until the beginning of World War I that play things start to become more advanced, and accessible. "In 1914 when America starts making money hand over fist from Lend Lease and they're selling everything to Europe and raking in piles of cash, there's a boom in personal living," says Long. The stockings would be stuffed during this time, presumably, the tables of the wealthy set with Dickens-esque meals.

Charleston Museum curator of historical archeology Martha Zierden says that other than a 'special' amount and variety of food, during the holidays, "Charles Dickens' novels are actually considered fairly good references for such things." Depending on the family's wealth and status the scene may resemble A Christmas Carol, "Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch ..."

The tableware would be the nicest in the cabinet, but may not be adorned with typical Christmas scenes — Spode's now ubiquitous Christmas Tree design was not introduced until 1938.

"Everything I know [about 19th century tableware] is captured in a single dish," says Zierden. "[It was] recovered from an office site on Meeting Street. This child's plate in molded whiteware probably dates to the 1830s-40s, and features a transfer-printed scene entitled 'Christmas Day.' A young lad is stuffing himself with what appears to be plum pudding. The table in the foreground includes the rest of the pudding, an empty plate with knife and fork, and a tall candlestick."

Nearly 200 years later, and a scene of a child feasting on pudding still resonates, a table set to burst, houses so bright they could direct a ship — Christmas Day filled with food, toys, merrymaking, and grand illumination.