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Christmas presents cost a lot less 100 years ago

A look back at advertised prices in Guelph during the 1921 holiday season

Christmas a century ago. For the people of Guelph in 1921, it was a very different world than the one we know today. The Great War had been over for three years, but its devastation was still felt, especially at times like Christmas when empty places at family gatherings were all the more difficult to bear.

Nonetheless, most Guelphites tried to make it a time for joy and celebration. Some people would purchase a spruce or pine Christmas tree, but many would have just gone out to the bush to cut one down. Artificial trees made from feathers or brush bristles were available, but it wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that plastic and aluminum trees became popular.

The fire chief would issue his annual warning about decorating trees with lit candles, but fires still happened. That year, days before Christmas, Guelph city council voted not to give a bonus to the city’s firemen as a reward for their service. The issue was hotly debated, with harsh words marring the serenity of the last regular session of the year.

The Christmas tree committee of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce put up a big tree downtown two days before Christmas Eve. It was wired with lights by the light and heat commissioners. A “committee of ladies” took care of the rest of the decorations and announced in the Guelph Mercury that gift packages of chocolate would be handed out to children. Sick kids would get presents of books, candy and fruit. Girl Guides would deliver food hampers to the needy.

If Ebeneezer Scrooge were in Guelph, it would have been easy for him to send that Christmas surprise to the family of his struggling clerk. Huether’s “Big, Bright, Sanitary” Meat Market delivered turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens right to people’s doors all across town. For people with non-traditional tastes there was winter fair spring lamb – “All Prize Winners” – and just 20 cents a pound.

According to an ad in the Mercury, December 12 was still “early” for Christmas shopping. But Guelph’s merchants were ready for those early bird shoppers just the same. Coles Bros. & Scott, advertised as “The People’s Store” offered deals on men’s and boys’ coats, and ladies plush coats, silk waists, kimonas and dressing gowns. There were also bargain prices on “Holiday Footwear.” Yes, even back then the word “Holiday” was in use as a term for the Christmas season.

G.B. Ryan & Co., which had three locations in Guelph, had men’s silk shirts for $5, belts for $1 and suspenders for 25 cents. Women’s silk lingerie cost $1.95, and boudoir caps of silk or lace were $2 and up. As a Christmas special for little girls, dressed dolls with hair, regularly 75 cents, were available for 39 cents.

For people who could afford to splurge on Christmas presents, at Pequegnat & Sons Gift Store, which specialized in jewellery, silver toilet sets were marked down from $80 to $70, and a string of La Tausca pearls could be had for $15. A man’s solid gold Elgin pocket watch cost $50, and a woman’s 14k gold Waltham Swiss wristwatch went for $40. Just the things for Christmas stockings.

The Acker Furniture Co. made a special offer “To Those Folks With Limited Incomes.” Even if you were poor, you could buy practical gifts of furniture on credit. The ever-popular Kandy Kitchen downtown offered Christmas stockings priced from five cents to $3, and a great variety of sweets and nuts with which to fill them. The seasonal “Santa Claus Mixture” was just 20 cents a pound.

Columbia Records, whose latest hit recordings were available at Kelly’s Music Store, advertised its selection for gift ideas and family entertainment in the Mercury. Dance numbers included the Wabash Blues Fox Trot by The Columbians, and the Jabberwocky Fox Trot by The Happy Six. On the list of top hit songs were Cry Baby Blues by Dolly Kay, and Al Jolson’s April Showers.

For those who wanted an evening out during the holiday season, Griffin’s Theatre offered Nomads of the North, with Betty Blythe and Lon Chaney, two of the biggest stars of the silent screen. The Regent Theatre had The Man Who with Bert Lytell. That theatre also had a matinee special – a vaudeville act that featured Scotty Proven; violinist, singer and comedian. “Don’t Miss Scotty,” said the advertisement in the Mercury. “He Has Appeared All Over the World.” On December 23, Santa Claus would be at the theatre to pass out boxes of chocolate to children.

In spite of all the festive preparations, the season wouldn’t be so jolly for some Guelphites. Prohibition was in effect, and a Mercury headline announced, “Police Nab Big Consignment of Yuletide Booze.” Police Chief John A. Rae had been tipped off that a shipment of bootleg liquor from Toronto would be arriving at an address on Sackville St. Police constables were waiting when the carload of Scotch whiskey pulled into its destination.

The driver, a man named Jacob Schwartzman, spent Christmas in a cell in the Wellington County jail, contemplating three to six months in prison and a fine of $1,000. For his customers, it would be a dry Christmas.