By: Steven Wear
I know, I know, history isn’t a word that I get excited about, but sometimes it means gaining a new perspective on something you thought you knew. Like how did Christmas gift shopping become the way it is? The answer starts with department stores. Department stores have always played an enormous role in American consumer culture. Their large influence on the American Christmas season is only logical seeing how Christmas has been the biggest commercial celebration in America for over a hundred years. The 1930s exemplifies this influence.
Department stores in the 1930s helped form the routine purchasing of manufactured goods during the Christmas season. Prior to department stores’ efforts, a personal, a home-made present was preferred over a manufactured product. Manufactured gifts were seen as impersonal because of their factory origin.
Through the use of various marketing tactics, department stores were eventually able to abolish this sentiment and enforce the purchasing of their manufactured goods. The use of Christmas window displays of manufactured goods became a traditional tactic of department stores by the 1930s. The first instance was in 1874 with a Macy’s Department Store display of $10,000 worth of dolls. Specialized manufactured goods designated as “Christmas gifts” helped remove the stigma of the impersonal nature of factory-produced goods. Further more, the ritualized practice of removing price tags and gift-wrapping the manufactured goods was introduced by departments stores in the early 19th century.
In the 1930s, popular magazines had established the routine of beginning Christmas advertising in November. It was also at this time that department stores determined that people began their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving. It was department stores’ pressure on the United States government that caused President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to change Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the second to last Thursday in 1939; in 1939 the last Thursday of the month was November 30th, which would have only given department stores 25 days of post-Thanksgiving Christmas shopping. For 1939 and 1940, Thanksgiving remained changed to the second to last Thursday of the month. In 1941 it was changed back back to the last Thursday permanently. The lasting effect of department stores may not include Thanksgiving still being earlier in November, but their hand in changing Christmas to the experience we have today is pretty incredible.
Sources: Belk, Russell W. “Materialism and the Making of the Modern American Christmas.” Objects, Subjects and Mediations in Consumption. Ed. Daniel Miller. London [u.a.: Routledge, 2001. Print.