The same Christmas come-ons in 1893 -- only the prices have changed

December 21, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

IF YOU'RE about worn out with this year's Christmas shopping ads, take heart. A century ago merchants used pretty much the same come-on. Only the prices have changed.

For example, today the big attraction at Christmas is the big sale or the store with discount pricing. In the late 19th century, merchants also talked about consumer savings: "Silk hats, $3.90," read one ad. "Elsewhere, $5.00." Another retailer boasted, "Silk Plush Albums, $1.65 and $1.87 each, worth $3 and $4."

And the contemporary sales that warn other dealers to stay away had their counterparts a century ago: "Positively only one overcoat sold at a time and no repeating . . . .Positively no dealer will be tolerated in our store during this special sale."

Yes, there were educated consumers in the 1890s, thanks to ads that told it like it was. "I don't manufacture or sell any low-priced, trashy sealskin garments," a merchant advertised, "only strictly reliable goods in stock; elegant fitting garments at lowest possible prices."

To be sure, there weren't any suburban shopping malls a century ago, but many of the products that abound in those emporiums today were widely available in the Gay '90s, including high-priced musical instruments that play everything with the touch of a finger and push of a pedal. Beginning in 1886 and lasting for several years, for instance, the come-on in department stores was a "musical boudoir stand" that could "play everything" and was "ornamental, useful and musical." For musically inclined kids, "Nothing will delight more than one of our self-play instruments, a Melodia, Musette, Mandolina or Celestina from $5 to $25."

Clever or humorous ads were a welcome relief in the 1890s, just as they are today. "Warm hearts do not insure warm hands," began an ad from a clothing merchant. "If you would fully enjoy the sports of winter, go well clad." One merchant dubbed his children's area the "Lilliputian Bazaar." Another sold "SCARLET" underwear in December in these grades: "good weight, $.90; all wool, $1.18; medicated, $1.47; anti-rheumatism, $2.90."

And there were plenty of late 19th-century mail-order ads that rivaled today's preposterous claims. One was for a "Pillow-Inhaler" that was guaranteed to "permanently cure catarrh, bronchitis, asthma and incipient consumption." It included the usual testimonials from satisfied customers like H.F. Teele of Chicago:

"I suffered 15 years from a severe case of catarrh; coughed incessantly day and night. I bought a Pillow-Inhaler, and since using it my cough is gone."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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