CHRISTMAS PAST: 1906 When ‘tradition’ confronted jolting ‘change’

In the last weeks of 1906, 110 years ago, change was in the air everywhere for “Dorchesterites” – except for one traditional and venerable mainstay of town life – Christmas and the holiday season.

That landmark year saw Henry Ford’s Model A “horseless carriage,” seen as “a thoroughly practical car at a moderate price” of $850, roaring past horse-drawn milk wagons along the town’s snowy, ice-caked streets. A taste sensation known as “pizza” was spreading from New York’s Little Italy to Boston and environs, and Dorchester’s most fashionable women were shedding the showy fashions of the turn of the century for “less ornate and constrictive” garb.

A flurry of ads proclaimed an abundance of Christmas wares, streets teemed with overloaded shoppers, church notices outlined Yuletide services, all scenes reflecting that in Dorchester, the adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” holds true.

“Christmas Is Near,” said an annual holiday ad in the Dorchester Beacon from Mrs. M.A. Whitmarch & Company, a stationery and novelties shop perched on Geneva Avenue. Locals streamed into the store to pick up everything from such holiday essentials as Christmas cards to “the famous Palmer Perfume,” a period version of Boucheron, Fendi, and other latter-day fragrances and favored by many a man for that special woman.

For “on-the-fence” customers who needed to make a call to someone about a prospective purchase, Whitmarch & Company offered the latest in modern convenience: “Public Telephone and Postal Telegraph Connections.”

Vying not only for the fragrance trade but also for the “Christmas Candies” buyers among Dorchester’s holiday shoppers was Jaynes & Co., its “Manufacturing and Retail Druggist” stores offering savings of “25 to 33% on your Christmas goods” each holiday season of the early 1900s. The mini-chain’s ads boasted: “Look in the Window of Any of Our Stores and See the Finest Display of Christmas Perfumes and Candles in New England. At “3 Stores Only – 50 Washington, cor. Hanover St., 143 Summer, cor. South St., 877 Washington, opp. Oak St.” – Jaynes & Co. offers an array of “Selected Perfumes, Violet Water, Lavender Water, and Cologne.”

For their husbands, wives who did not mind clouds of tobacco smoke in the house could purchase “Christmas Cigars – 25 in a Box – of Jaynes’s Perfectos” at $1.75 a box to high-end “Jaynes’s Clear Havana, large size,” at a pricey $3.75 a box. One can only speculate as to whether a whiff of “Jaynes’s Garden Bouquet Cigars” ($1.40) offered truth in advertising.

Doubtlessly catching the attention of Dorchester’s children, Jaynes’s Christmas Candies were advertised annually as “unexcelled in quality.” Clerks wrapped the sweets in “unique boxes for Christmas trade” at no extra charge, a proverbial tip of the commercial hat to holiday shoppers. Jaynes’s Stores, in ads run every December of the era, also suggested “Hot Water Bottles and Military Brushes” as holiday notions. Practical, perhaps, but one can easily envision the stony stares that might have greeted such a “thoughtful” gift on Christmas Day.

The Christmas season of 1906 found many people heading to a perennial favorite shopping site at 1404 Dorchester Avenue, where John J. Hagerty & Company offered a broad range of “Imported Wines and Liquors” for holiday tables. Many of Hagerty’s selections would stand the test of time: He sold Bass Ale and Guinness alike “in Quarts and Pints.” If the season’s shoppers were truly pressed for time, they could simply call Hagerty’s at “238-2 Dorchester” to arrange a delivery in time for Christmas parties.

At the corner of Bowdoin and Hamilton Streets, the Meeting House Hill Dry Goods Store would always run a mid-December ad with the capitalized, bold-black ink headline “CHRISTMAS! CHRISTMAS!” It was yet another “warning” to Dorchester’s residents that the holiday was fast bearing down upon them. “By making an early choice,” the notice advised, “the purchaser secures the best selection, and, avoiding the crowd of Christmas week, has greater comfort in examining our goods.” The ads’ goods included “Holiday Stock of Dolls, Books, Bric-a-brac, Fancy Jewelry, Perfumery, Handkerchiefs, Umbrellas, and a full line of Christmas Novelties.”

All local holiday ads paled in comparison to the Beacon’s annual entry “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING OF?” The jarring Yuletide headline blared brashly and perhaps annoyingly to many locals as would obnoxious Christmas sales pitches from flat-screen televisions, laptops, notebooks, tablets, and iPhone and Smart Phone screens in 2016. Which turn-of-the-century Dorchester retailer was responsible for, or guilty of, that headline? Even now, the retailer’s name seems somehow fitting: the Mammoth Blue Store.

Mammoth indeed! The structure jutted five stories at 2260 Washington Street at the corner of Warren. Frank Ferdinand’s Mammoth Blue Store “catered” to holiday shoppers with a “good and useful present in mind.” That present? Furniture, of course, from the precursor of Jordan’s, Bernie & Phil’s, Bob’s, and other big-box emporiums.

Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas that year, the sprawling Mammoth Blue Store’s ads exhorted shoppers to buy “a present to make home a little more pleasant.” With a pitch that would have warmed the holiday hearts of 2016’s furniture titans, Ferdinand asked, “Why not a fancy rocker, a dresser, a brass bed, a parlor set, or an Oriental rug” under the tree?

No one could doubt that he had a dizzying array of Christmas inventory. “Why, the floor space we occupy for just our Fancy Rockers and Chairs is as large as most of the Furniture Stores, and our desks about the same. Large show rooms, large stock, large assortment, making it very easy to select what you want.”

For Dorchesterites of 1906 and 2016 alike, that “most wonderful time of the year” brought, and brings, a sometimes dizzying collision of traditional and modern Christmas themes. In each era, they understood the irony of change including the notion of permanence.

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