Christmas 1911: Downtown Was Jamming, the Season Was Expanding
(but for a different reason than you might think)
Canal Street, showing Maison Blanche and D. H. Holmes, was the chief shopping district of New Orleans in 1911.
Images Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection
Christmas of 1911 in New Orleans was decidedly American – sacred, secular and no less commercial than today. As early as Nov. 26, D. H. Holmes advertised “Begin Checking Off Your Christmas List.”
In early December Santa was on duty at all of the department stores from Maison Blanche, D.H. Holmes, Marks Isaacs, Krauss and Fellman’s on Canal Street to Kaufman’s on Dryades Street. The Maison Blanche toy department covered nearly 17,000 square feet – “the largest showing in the entire South.” Thirty-six years before the birth of MB’s Mr. Bingle, the store advertised that Santa had a wireless telegraph station where children could send “wirograms” telling their toy requests to the “King of Fairyland, Jack Frost Castle, Fairyland.”
At Holmes, children were invited to draw pictures of Santa Claus for a cash prize. On prize day over 5,000 children thronged the store’s second-floor toy department where each youngster received a free toy from the store’s regular stock.
Most stores were open between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. during the season, and shopping early in December was promoted. This was a nationwide movement advocated by the American Consumers’ League, since traditionally people began Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, leaving sales clerks exhausted. On Dec. 3, The Daily Picayune’s cartoon weather frog encouraged people to, “Do Your Christmas Shopping Now.” Kreeger’s, an elegant Canal Street women’s store, called early shopping “your biggest gift of the Holidays to the workers behind the counters.”
Christmas Eve fell on Sunday and most stores were closed, but on Dec. 23 an estimated crowd of 100,000 filled Canal Street stores, some of which stayed open until after midnight. The Daily Item reported that the “Christmas trade of 1911 has been the biggest in the history of the city.”
Rainwear was in great demand, since there had been so much wet weather, while toy departments were virtually cleared out.
Nurseries did banner business. Fir trees were readily available, as opposed to earlier years when any decorated potted plant in New Orleans sufficed for Christmas. The Metairie Ridge Nursery sold over 4,700 trees – a record for the company. Poinsettias sold well, including the then-new “sport” or white poinsettia.
It was estimated that the local post office handled more mail than ever before (287,000 pieces of mail in 24 hours). Postal staff worked overtime without pay, and post offices were open Christmas Day until noon, even undertaking some deliveries.
Traditionally, vast crowds filled Canal Street on Christmas Eve to shop and make noise with horns, drums, fireworks and even gunfire. 1911 was quieter than usual, since it was Sunday with stores closed. Nevertheless, after nightfall festive crowds – described by the States Item as “Hurry and bustle and fume and fuss” – filled the street. Store windows were radiantly decorated while electric lights and electric advertising signs blazed through the drizzly chill.
Thousands of adults and children sloshed along the wet sidewalks. Those in evening dress jostled those in rags. The air was filled with a cacophony of noisemakers – horns, bells, drums and fireworks. Automobiles dashed about among horse-drawn carriages and carts. Vendors lined the sidewalks hawking their wares.
Between Royal and Dauphine streets, Canal Street was jammed with crowds moving by sheer natural force. Police were posted to keep people moving, to stop the use of fireworks and firearms and to arrest any bad elements. The crowd was generally orderly and by midnight began to diminish, which differed from previous years when streets remained thronged into Christmas Day. There were a few fireworks accidents and accidental shootings, but police were vigilant, and Christmas Eve 1911 was decidedly less dangerous than in the 1880s or 1890s.
The city’s leading hotels – St. Charles, Monteleone, DeSoto (now Le Pavillon) and Grunewald (now Roosevelt) – were brilliantly decorated and lighted. Buffets were set in the dining rooms, as well as at restaurants such as Faubacher’s and Kolb’s for a fixed price of about $1. Restaurants were open late, reopening at noon on Christmas Day with similar fare.
All theaters were open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The most popular play was The Sweetest Girl in Paris, a comedy at the Tulane at Baronne and Common streets starring “America’s Funniest Woman” Trixie Friganza. Next door at the Crescent was another comedy act, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch; while at the Lafayette (now Civic) on Baronne Street near Poydras Street, there was a day-long presentation of Christmas plays and skits, and children were given boxes of candies.
For the sacred holiday, an unusually large number attended Catholic midnight masses and Protestant celebrations. Midnight masses were held in more churches than usual, and at the St. Louis Cathedral Archbishop Blenk celebrated mass, which was followed by an elaborate musical program.
Many Catholic and Protestant churches presented lengthy musical programs, such as those of Catholic Holy Name of Jesus and Episcopal St. George’s, which were considered especially notable.
On Christmas morning streetcars were filled with people going to church. Each Catholic church celebrated three Masses – the first at 4 a.m. – which was enough for most Catholics to attend at least one Mass. Cribs depicting Christ’s manger in Bethlehem were prominent in Catholic churches and were visited by crowds of all denominations. One of the most lavish was at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Protestant churches began services at 7:30 a.m., with the service at Christ Church outlined in the press. Lutheran churches were noted for their Christmas trees and presents for children.
Churches and charities gave baskets of food to the needy, while the Volunteers of America and Salvation Army gave several thousand of the poor Christmas dinner. The Times-Democrat’s Doll and Toy Fund – begun in 1896 – gave away 15,000 toys at Washington Artillery Hall to poor white children; in 1913 the newspaper began a similar fund for black youngsters. Hospitals and orphanages gave parties and gifts to children around huge Christmas trees. Newsboys were given a feast at Fabacher’s Restaurant, and 50 of them received clothing from Beckman’s on St. Charles Avenue. Even Orleans Parish Prison, decorated with lights and trees with ornaments made by prisoners, provided inmates with a feast including wine, and visitors were admitted all Christmas Day.
For conservative French Catholics the season only just began on Christmas Eve when they attended Midnight Mass followed by a family réveillon – a late-night meal at home and not in a restaurant. Gifts were simple, befitting the sacred significance of the day. For many French, the main gift-giving day with the finest presents and richest réveillon remained New Year’s Day. By 1911 Creole children expected Christmas gifts from Père or Papa Noël – French derivatives of Santa. While a few shops advertised “Cadeaux de Noël et de Premier de l’An,” this had been discontinued by the big stores, New Year’s Eve was a reprise of Christmas Eve with even larger, noisier crowds (estimated at 100,000) filling a cold Canal Street to welcome in 1912. Restaurants and hotels were crowded – over 1,000 celebrated in the Grunewald’s dining room and basement club (called the Cave). Lights were turned off at midnight in the two rooms, as “Happy New Year” blazed up in electric lights.
Once set aside for rushing about to visit friends and relatives, New Year’s Day by 1911 had become a quiet day with little activity – it would be 23 years before Sugar Bowl football would liven things up locally. Twelfth Night on Jan. 6 ends the 12 Days of Christmas. Since this fell on Friday in 1911, there were numerous parties where cakes – precursors of today’s King Cakes but decorated in Christmas red and green – contained beans for choosing a king and queen of the party. At the French Opera House the annual ball of the 12th Night Revelers ushered in the Carnival season of 1912 and the Christmas season once again faded away with little fanfare.