by William K. Klingaman
In the midst of World War II, department stores across America were anticipating the biggest commercial Christmas rush in United States history. Fur coats, silk dinner pajamas, and ostrich capes became all the rage. But what spurred on this Christmas craze in December of 1941?
Christmas 1941 was shaping up to be the most delightful holiday season Americans had enjoyed in a long time. After more than a decade, the economy was finally emerging from the Great Depression, a recovery fueled by the Roosevelt administration’s rapid expansion of defense spending over the past eighteen months. Hard times vanished in munitions factories, shipyards, and aircraft plants. Americans had never had so much money to spend in their lives.
In the first week of December, department store owners expected “the biggest Christmas rush in United States history,” and so they greeted customers with display windows filled with a dazzling array of gift ideas. Fur coats seemed to be everywhere: Russian ermine, Japanese mink, blended sable capes, and silver fox jackets. (“A good long-term investment, no matter how you look at it,” chirped one ad. “She’ll love it!”) There were silk dinner pajamas, and waist-length ostrich capes with crepe linings; women’s blouses covered with sequins, and nightgowns with tiny embroidered rabbits riding bicycles down the front. Masses of glitter were stuck to everything from V-neck jackets to black crepe evening dresses.
Wise men purchased at least several pairs of hosiery for their wives and girlfriends—a sudden war scare with Japan over the summer had provoked panic buying of stockings, and merchants warned that they were facing “the vanishing last few yards of silk.” Jewelry with oversize semiprecious stones was in fashion, along with watches of red gold and, for those on a budget, silver bangle bracelets with animal charms. Chanel announced it was still possible to buy its famous perfume, although stocks were starting to run low now that the German army had occupied Paris. Another option came from Russia—a new perfume that came in a bottle shaped like a tank, with turrets and all. To ease the anxieties of gentlemen whose knees buckled at the prospect of buying gifts of intimate apparel for women, one store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan hosted a “stag party,” where two dozen young models demonstrated how negligees, lingerie, furs, and jewels might look (more or less) on their customers’ sweethearts; more than a thousand appreciative men attended.
One week into the Christmas shopping season, consumers were buying gifts at a record pace. “Furious local counter attacks are now raging,” declared the Chicago Tribune, as customers battled in stores for prized merchandise. In Washington, authorities assigned seventy-two additional policemen and -women to the shopping district to handle the crowds. The U.S. Department of Commerce predicted that Christmas retail sales nationwide would reach $5.5 billion, 15 percent higher than the previous mark set in the last pre-Depression year of 1929. For the entire year of 1941, retail sales were expected to surpass $54 billion, nearly 20 percent more than 1940, and 11 percent greater than 1929.
“Enhanced income and the prospects immediately ahead are the major factors influencing the expansion in consumer purchasing this year,” declared a Commerce Department report, and few could blame American consumers for feeling bullish about the future. Nearly every economic indicator inspired optimism. More than 3 million new workers had been added to business payrolls over the previous year, sending the total number of trade and industrial wage earners over the 42 million mark for the first time in the nation’s history. Federal unemployment benefit payments declined every month, and by October 1941, fewer Americans were receiving jobless benefits than at any time since the program began. Driven by higher wage rates and lots of overtime hours in defense plants, national income was approaching $100 billion, more than $20 billion above the 1929 record.
“Insofar as trade is concerned, the Christmas outlook is rosy,” concluded a Baltimore Sun editorial, “and if trade is any indication the holiday season itself will be rosy too. This may be a small benefit, but at a time when there are so many problems and so many dangers, it is something to the good.” Those dangers—the threat that the United States would be pulled into the war in Europe, or forced to break Japanese aggression in East Asia—lent an almost wistful quality to Americans’ preparations for Christmas in 1941. “This will be a Christmas full of compassion for the unfortunates of the world,” wrote one hopeful midwesterner, “mixed with Thanksgiving that we have been spared the sufferings of Europe.” But anyone who could read a headline knew that this might be the last peacetime Christmas the nation would know for a long time. “Now we see the distant fire rolling toward us,” warned newspaper columnist Raymond Clapper. “It is not being put out. It is still some distance away, but the evil wind blows it towards us.”
Hence President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to move the annual national Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the spacious but sterile Washington Mall to his backyard, formally known as the White House South Lawn. Christmas trees held a special place in Roosevelt’s heart—the president still maintained a profitable tree farm on his property in Hyde Park, New York, and gave away evergreens to his friends each December—and a year earlier he and his wife, Eleanor, had decided to move the 1941 lighting ceremony inside the White House gates, to give it a more “homey” feel and encourage a spirit of neighborliness among the thousands of ordinary Americans expected to attend. The Roosevelts planned to lead the gathering in singing four well-known Christmas carols as part of the hour-long proceedings (previously, the public had not been invited to sing along), and the Washington Post agreed to print a leaflet with the lyrics ahead of time. In fact, the Post desired to make this holiday “a caroling Christmas,” to use traditional music to promote “that feeling of camaraderie which is only too acutely needed now.”
Somehow it all seemed to blend with the nation’s preparedness program, which by early December had made military images and slogans a part of Americans’ everyday lives. “I am astonished,” reported one observer, “at the frequency with which the word ‘defense’ is used in reading matter and even in advertisements.” Some of the commercial messages actually made sense. “A strong automobile industry is the backbone of defense,” argued Plymouth. “Buick Builds for Defense,” claimed General Motors, which added that its trucks were “Partners in Power for the Nation’s Defense.”
Military motifs also invaded the $30 million Christmas card industry, most notably in the introduction of cards that included an album for defense stamps (essentially inexpensive versions of defense bonds). The cards themselves featured familiar American images on the front—Uncle Sam, a bald eagle, or a Minuteman—and bore inscriptions such as “A Patriotic Gift with Best Christmas Wishes,” or “A Tip From Uncle Sam with Christmas Greetings.” The sender could then purchase (separately) and paste in as many ten-cent defense stamps as desired as gifts. There were also cards designed especially for servicemen (“Hope You ‘Fall In’ for a Merry Christmas, Sailor!”), and others that replaced Santa’s sleigh with Army planes. And for those who objected to the cost of the administration’s preparedness program, one card complained that “We pay a tax on holly, / We pay a tax on ‘cheer,’ / We pay a tax on livin’ / All through the dog-gone year! / We pay a tax on workin’ / We pay a tax on playin’ / But anyway I’m thankful / There ain’t no tax on sayin’ / Merry Christmas!”
But nowhere were the effects of the nation’s military preoccupation more visible than in the stores’ displays of children’s toys, particularly for boys. (Girls retained their traditional preference for dolls, especially the new “Magic Skin” dolls—“ Touch it, and it warms under your startled hand . . . expose it to the sun, and, by golly, it tans!”—although dolls with Red Cross nurses’ outfits were more popular than in previous years.) Kids could use a combination toy searchlight and antiaircraft gun to hunt for enemy planes in the sky, or slow advancing imaginary tanks with child-size howitzers that used a spring mechanism to fire real projectiles. Toy tommy guns that formerly battled gangsters morphed into home-defense guns to fend off invading troops. Miniature battleships and submarines that really dove underwater kept bathtubs free of foreign foes. Buck Rogers outfits and American Indian costumes disappeared as younger boys, especially, chose to dress up as soldiers. One firm promoted its “Boys’ Complete Military Playsuits” for ages four to fourteen, complete with khaki jacket, trousers, and cap, along with a Sam Browne belt, holster, and gun. And toy soldiers appeared in every conceivable guise: parachute troops, pilots, infantrymen, antiaircraft gunners, and stretcher bearers carrying tiny stretchers; there were even miniature sandbags and wire barricades in case of air raids.
William K. Klingaman holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Virginia and has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland. He is the author of seven previous books, including histories of the years 1816, 1918, 1929, and 1941.
Tags: american history, christmas, FDR, The Darkest Year, William K. Klingaman, WWII