December 19, 2012

Marketing a Merry Christmas

By Patrick McCue
Patrick is working temporarily on the Montana Digital Newspaper Project.
WHILE most people assume that the commercialization of Christmas is a modern phenomenon, I examined the digitized Montana newspapers available at Chronicling America to see if this is true. On December 9, 1865, one Virginia City merchant acknowledged the holiday but without much fanfare. This Frank’s Bakery ad showcases holiday confections, but the adjacent advertisers have not caught on to the season's commercial potential.

Ad in the Montana Post, December 9, 1865
Montana Post, December 9, 1865, p. 3 
A year later, the paper’s editor took it upon himself to direct readers toward an ad for Christmas goods. 

Montana Post, December 22, 1866, p. 8

The editor also offers a distinctly non-commercial message on December 29, 1866:

“Anthems of praise in honor of the sojourn of the Redeemer upon the Earth are this day resounding throughout the world… It is the grand anniversary, compared with which those of nations dwindle into nothingness.”

No references to gifts or reindeer, and no mention of eager children awaiting St. Nick. By the 1880s, things have shifted. Christmas sales are now front-page news, and retailers unabashedly cash in on the holiday spirit. All wares, from garments and toys to jewelry and cigars, are proudly promoted, using creative designs and seasonal slogans. The following ads appeared in the Daily Yellowstone Journal on December 3, 1889.

During the 1890s, Christmas ads begin to appear in November and in greater numbers. This ad sports some clever wordplay: 
Anaconda Standard, November 11, 1897, p. 1

By the new millennium, holiday ads are larger and more sophisticated, as evidenced by these full-page ads from the Fergus County Argus in 1902 and 1904.


Hundreds of ads like these can be found on the Library of Congress web site Chronicling America, where over 54,000 pages of historical Montana newspapers are available for searching and viewing.