It was a remarkable Christmas in Columbus.
It was a remarkable Christmas in Columbus.
Of course, one could say that most Christmases in Columbus have had something nice to remember for most of the people who lived here or were in town over the years for the holiday. But the white Christmas of 1909 was more memorable than most.
This is not to say that many, if not most, of the traditional touches that had come to be associated with the holiday season of a century ago were not present as well.
Christmas 100 years ago was a time of celebration, of giving and caring. But most of all it was a time of religious observance. While the celebration of Christian beginnings is still important today, it was central to the Christmas of Columbus in the world of 10 decades ago. Every church in Columbus was not only appropriately decorated at this time of the year; they were all heavily attended as well. It was well within the living memory of many of the residents of Columbus in 1909 when a church service and a nice dinner was all one might expect to see on Christmas day.
That rather austere approach to Christmas had begun to change in the 1850s with the arrival of large numbers of German and Irish immigrants who brought their own traditions and a boisterous energy to holiday celebrations in America.
The new happy open nature of the holiday was quickly combined with the industrial revolution sweeping across America. The result was a Christmas as anticipated for its presents as it was for its presence.
By 1900, something of a golden age of American consumerism was about to begin. Emerging from a devastating Civil War, America had seen terrible economic depressions in the 1870s and the 1890s. Now, in the early 20th century, the United States was trying to put all of that behind and look ahead to at time of peace, growth and prosperity.
By 1909, America and Columbus had seen that growth. The small Midwestern capital had become a bustling city with large numbers of people making shoes, steel, beer and buggies. An economic recession in 1907 was over and, for more than two years, Columbus and the country had seen positive economic growth.
Good times were back.
And of course with good times came higher prices. A local newspaper pointed out what many people already knew -- the cost of an average Christmas dinner had gone up quite a bit in the past 10 years.
"It is estimated that the cost of a Christmas dinner has just doubled -- increased 100 per cent -- in that time. For instance on Dec. 21, 1899, the advertised price of a dressed turkey was ten cents a pound. The day has long passed when you could take your market basket on your arm and purchase your Christmas turkey for a dollar, your celery four bunches for a nickel, cranberries three quarts for a dime, etc. etc."
In 1909, "turkeys are retailing at 30 cents a pound. One aged Columbus buyer who was ordering his turkey Thursday remarked to his dealer that if he lived to be 10 years older he allowed that the dealers would probably charge admission to look at the turkeys."
Even though the prices were higher, people were willing to pay them. But for all of the people doing well, there were always a large number of people who were not. Most of the newspapers in Columbus took notice of the plight of the poor at Christmas time and asked their readers to contribute to groups trying to help them.
In 1909, the Charity Newsies, a gathering of 50 former newsboys, was only 2 years old, but it still managed to collect $3,000 -- an impressive amount in those days -- over the weekend before Christmas. A number of other charities also collected large sums during the holiday season.
Most of the collected money went to help poor people who came in from the cold streets to place like the Salvation Army and the Volunteers of America. But some of it went to help make Christmas more pleasant at places like the Ohio schools for the blind and deaf, the state hospital for the mentally ill and the Ohio Penitentiary.
As all of these activities were going forward, Columbus also was trying something new. On Christmas night at 7:30, Gov. Judson Harmon turned on the lights at the first annual Columbus Auto Show at the Columbus Auditorium.
Automobiles in the early 1900s captured the imagination of Americans something like the way computers and cell phones do today. Autos had been around since the 1880s and the first car had appeared on the streets of Columbus in 1901. But these machines were expensive and really more the toys of the wealthy. Now in 1909, the automobile was becoming available to everyone. And the auto show was the place to see them. It would be one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of the great wooden building near Goodale Park.
Columbus was a city where people moved by horse and car, and wagon and rail. But mostly, people walked. They walked to church and school, theatre and store. And many of them walked to the auto show as well.
This is rather remarkable in its own right since the city was covered in the deepest Christmas snow it had seen in almost 20 years.
On Christmas Eve, the snow began to fall. By the time the storm had passed, more than five and a half inches of snow had fallen on the city. It was the largest Christmas snowfall since the seven inches that fell in 1890.
On Christmas morning, the streets of Columbus were largely deserted as the snow continued to fall. The great industrial city was as quiet as it had been when it once had been as little more than a modest village at the edge of the moving frontier.
Some say that it is the sound of the city that gives it an identity. Perhaps it is also the special silence on the mornings that matter that makes this city or any city as real as it is ever likely to be.
In closing, here is a "tested recipe" from 1909.
Hickory Nut Cake
"Take a half cupful of butter, two cupfuls of sugar, and four eggs beaten separately; then three cupfuls of flour, one half cupful of sweet milk, two teaspoonfuls of baking powder,
Two cupfuls of hickory nut meats cut fine, with one teaspoonful extract of vanilla."
There were no directions for baking time and temperature -- presumably each cook knew such things without being reminded.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.