Christmas Shopping in Gotham: 1892

Christmas Shopping

Christmas Shopping


“Van Gryse ” describes the Ante-Holiday Rush for Bargains.

There is nothing, unless it might be the international yacht- races, which creates the furore in New York that Christmas does. For at least three weeks before the holy day, the city is in a ferment. The shopping streets are packed ; the large stores are jammed. It is as much as your life is worth to go into Macy’s, and Fourteenth Street is a sight worth going a long way to see.

On Sixth Avenue, the happy hunting-ground of the penniless, the crowd moves slowly, plowing along in a double line, one side going uptown, one going down. It is mixed in character here. A stunning carriage comes tooting along, and draws up at the kerb with a rattle of chains and a glitter of varnish. Two lovely ladies alight. The one is a plump matron, some years past thirty. She is furred, and beaded, and perfumed, and corseted to the finest point. She is too fat for beauty, but has a lovely, fresh skin, and looks as if she liked a good dinner better than almost anything else in the world. The other is a slim, young lass, too well-grown to be her daughter — perhaps a younger sister. She is all in tan color and sable, with a big, furry hat, trimmed with lace and pink roses. She is something exquisite in her wonderful, delicate, frail, ethereal way. The footman holds the door open for them, and they rustle into one of the big stores, and the crowd of tawdry beauties and avenue belles stand round and stare at them.

The other women on the avenue are on a middle plane. They are not quite so unkempt as the Fourteenth Street gang, and, also, not so fine as the Twenty-Third Street set. A quantity of them are country folk, in for holiday shopping. These are big, rosy, buxom women, with round cheeks like winter apples, and a great reserve of strength to carry them through the day. They forge ahead aggressively, and, as a rule, carry their own bundles. A good many well-dressed girls filter through the throng, snugly dressed for a morning’s hard work, in close-fitting coats, little round hats, a small collar of brown fur clasped round their necks, their hands in red dog-skin gloves, and their feet in very pointed, shiny shoes. They look so well-fed, and prosperous, and busy that one imagines at once that they are heiresses out for a peep into the town’s cheaper by-ways. As a rule, however, if you follow them into some shop, you will find them spending a chary dollar or two on a silver stamp-box or a pressed-glass bottle for the toilet-table. And one such purchase as this will occupy a whole morning.

Inside the Sixth Avenue places — “emporiums” they call them — the crowd is terrific. Here the human mass is packed close, and the air is horrible. The ceilings are low, the ventilation wretched, and one-half of the throng belong to the noble army of the great unwashed. Add to this that most of these big shops have a restaurant concealed somewhere in their purlieus, and one may form a mild idea of the condition of the atmosphere. Upon ascending a flight of stairs — the elevator being so densely packed that it is tempting Providence to get into it — one is assailed at the top by a penetrating odor of ham-and-eggs, mingled with a strong aroma of coffee. At the same instant, an excited female, in an imitation sealskin coat, holding clasped to her bosom a large, low-runner sleigh, uses her free hand to clutch you violently by the arm, and demands fiercely: “Where is the restaurant?”

A polite person would tell her, an indifferent one would say he did not know, a rude one would suggest to her to follow her nose, and leave her wondering if she had a cold in her head or Russian influenza.

Emerging from Sixth Avenue, in an exhausted condition, one wends a weary way toward Fourteenth Street, and, being possessed of the curiosity which is such a blight on the character of the most perfect, stands on tiptoe for a good ten minutes to see over the heads of the crowd into Macy’s window. There is some kind of a panorama going on in there, and occasionally one catches glimpses of beautiful dolls, with frizzled heads and satin robes, moving round in stately tableaux. Some kindly personage near by informs you that it is a panorama in dolls of ” The Magic Flute,” and, simultaneously, a large man pushes you violently against three small boys, whom you, in turn, crush up against a woman with dyed hair and painted eyes. She, having had her foot trodden upon, vociferates angrily and straightens her hat, a remarkable edifice, upon which nod all the flowers that bloom in the spring. Then she pulls down her white-lace veil and goes away, murmuring threats of vengeance and wagging her draperies of old-blue plush.

Presently, having rested against one of the door-jambs, thought of all the examples of heroic endurance that history tells of, fortified yourself with a quinine pill, and silently determined to do or die, you press your hat on tightly and button your coat, if you are a man, and, if you are a woman, grip your skirt and settle your bonnet-pins more securely, and enter Macy’s with a firm front. A seething sea of women, from which, here and there, a man towers like a rock, greets you in the doorway and beats you back against a counter where some haughty damsels are selling photograph-frames. You pause here, catch your breath, lighten your hold on your umbrella, muff, or stick, and plunge in. Elbows are driven into you, high heels crush your toes, angular ends of exceedingly hard bundles give you savage digs as their owners bear them toward the door. Lost children get about your feet and appear to cling there till rescued by distracted mothers. People seem to tread all over you and to take a cruel joy in driving you up against the corners of counters and the sharp ends of brass rails. You begin to feel that you have been perforated in several places and that the edges of some of your bones have been rubbed through by constant friction.

You, in your turn, do a little private pushing, and tramping, and crowding. You tread on a good many skirts, which give with a rending sound. You glide sideways through the press with some success. You extricate from the mass the woman who — with a Noah’s Ark under one arm, a baby under the other, a go-cart dragging from her hand, and a real, woolly dog on rollers hanging from her elbow — is about to give way to despair. You get angry, and furiously knock the cane that the young man in front of you carries pushed up under his arm, so that the ferule of it hits people in the eyes and pushes off women’s hats. You are filled with a sort of sick fatigue at the sight of the shop-girls, who — pale, tired, breathless — go on making out checks and answering questions with the regularity and dogged persistence of pieces of machinery.

Once out on the street again, the fresh air revives your drooping spirits. The wide pavement is filled to the gutter with the Christmas throng. Along the kerb, conversing together and singing the praises of their wares, stand long lines of hawkers. There are sellers of beads and colored-glass balls for Christmas-trees ; sellers of shredded tinsel that one drapes over the tree ; sellers of little black imps in long, narrow bottles ; sellers of skeletons twisting round on lines of cord placed across a semi-circle of wood ; sellers of a mechanical toy which represents a man, woman, and dog walking together down Broadway ; sellers of cheap picture- books, of paper Punch-and-Judy shows, of note-paper, of metal photograph-frames.

From these to the stores the crowd surges in hurried distraction. Never were seen people in such haste. No wonder we Americans are a nervous, irritable, high-strung race, when we tear ourselves to pieces in this fashion. Every one appears to be fearfully pressed for time. The universal hurry soon communicates itself to the most determined loiterer, and you have not passed under the black -and-gilt clock that mounts guard opposite Hearn’s, when you find yourself tearing like the rest. Women in twos, women in threes, women alone, dash by you almost on the run. Young girls with set faces, their little, jet-trimmed hats all askew, rush across the street nearly under the horses’ feet. Pale-faced mothers drag children along by one arm. All the world is in breathless haste to buy their Christmas presents. No wonder the people are all bedraggled and pallid. Two blocks of this wearies one more than a ten-mile walk in the country would do.

Between twelve and one, this exhausted company, feeling the need for sustenance, drops into a convenient hostelry known as some sort of a dairy. Why “dairy,” heaven knows Anything less like a dairy could not be imagined. In the front of the place, near the entrance, several long counters are ranged. Behind these, numerous beautiful young ladies preside, and, for the trifling consideration of a dime, will hand out to you, on an inch-thick plate, one aged bun and an attenuated Charlotte russe in a roll of paste-board. Other delicacies of the like description are set along the counters under glass covers. They look somewhat like the cakes and dainties that people pretend to eat on the stage. The whole place — the regular piles of ossified cakes and buns, the counters, and the attendant nymphs — recall to one’s mind the restaurant in the depot at Omaha.

The shoppers in the neighborhood seem to find the dairy quite a harbor of refuge. They patronize it in large crowds. Back of the entrance, where the counters and the high stools are, there is a restaurant proper. It is really an immense place, extending through nearly to the next street. Here the world, still pursued by that feeling that time is flying and no precious moments must be lost, sits and feeds with terrible swiftness. The Indian-juggler feat is performed on every hand with wonderful address and a calm assurance that bespeaks long practice. A great smell of “coffee and sinkers ” goes up toward the ceiling, and the crashing of crockery is mingled with the musical voice of some unseen personage, who screams orders down into the depths of the kitchen regions. Over all, a piano-organ is heard grinding out the “Dolores ” waltz in a fierce endeavor to dominate the general hubbub.

But the timid feaster at the counter dares not enter into this thickly populated place of feasting. He lingers at the counter and is consumed with a scorching thirst, precipitated by the one bun and the Charlotte russe in the paste-board cover. Relief presents itself in the shape of a large, nickle-plated affair, with a tap in the front, which looks like a cross between an ice-cooler and a Babcock fire-extinguisher, and which certainly must contain some sort of drinkable liquid.

Approaching a haughty young person who stands behind the counter, and asking what that urn-like object might be filled with, you are tersely and coldly told: “Bullion!”

This does not mean precious metals, as one might suppose, but beef-extract. You deposit another dime, and the young person draws from the urn a small cupful of boiling water. Into that she puts a spoonful of a sticky-looking brown substance, stirs it round once or twice, sets the cup down in front of you, also a pepper-box and a salt-cellar, and departs. The pepper won’t come out and the salt-cellar is empty. You savor the bouillon. It is of a raging heat, and, also, of a weird smell. You taste charily, put down the spoon, and meditate for a moment. At this instant, the piano-organ, with a convulsive scream, breaks from “Dolores”  into the middle of “Sweet Dreamland Faces,” and goes off into that pensive strain at a hard-gallop. The “bullion” sends up a cloud of odorous steam. You wipe your lips carefully on a handkerchief, and, continuing to press it against your nose, you take a hurried departure.


New York, December 23, 1891.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 11 January 1892

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  In light of “Black Friday” scenes, so distressingly full of stampeding customers and rudeness, plus ça change….

Mrs Daffodil will resume her regular service 2 December; she must supervise the unpacking of the Christmas decorations this week-end.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s