Robert Hume casts his eye over the ads in this newspaper 100 years ago to see what was on offer for Christmas presents
WHAT on earth are we going to buy for Christmas? Familiar words today. But a hundred years ago our ancestors were facing exactly the same headache.
The shopkeepers of Cork understood their difficulties well. Mayne’s China Hall in Patrick Street recognised that customers needed help with their Christmas gifts. Mangan’s, which for many years had made the Christmas present trade “a special study”, called it “the annual problem” and headed up its advert in the Cork Examiner on Dec 7, 1912, with the vexed question “What shall I give?”.
Fortunately, solutions were to hand, thousands of them — “glittering and resplendent”, “treasure houses” full of gifts. “Don’t pass without taking good notice”, advised the London House store which changed its Christmas displays every day. “Goods in view today replaced by others tomorrow, and still others the day after.”
Alexander Grant, drapers, hosiers and silk mercers, invited customers to view their “immense Stock of Goods eminently suitable for Christmas presents”. Cash & Company had “vast quantities of useful and ornamental articles specially selected for Christmas”.
The craftsman and designer, William Morris, once said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. He would certainly have been delighted with what was on sale in Cork shops — goods that would enrich any house.
Shop windows in the city were decked with dazzling gifts: stunning gowns and lovely silk blouses in the most becoming styles, fancy Irish lawn handkerchiefs, jewelled hair combs and dainty fans. Ink bottles and matchboxes of solid silver jostled for space with opera glasses and magic lanterns. At the London House there were displays of French jewellery, and novelties from Vienna and Japan.
For those who deserved something special, Alexander Grant offered reindeer gloves, or a choice of furs (fox, squirrel, mole or seal), there being “no present you can offer a lady that will be so much appreciated”.
A gold eye-glass chain, a silver toothbrush, or a beautiful silk umbrella with a handle of silver or gold might also suit a lady of fashion; whereas a gold toothpick, a silver snuff box or a silver postcard stand might be well received by a gentleman.
The best way to express “the sincerity of your feelings”, according to Queen’s Old Castle, was to give a present that was also useful. Perhaps something to keep one dry and warm: an umbrella, some muffs, a coat, a blanket or a quilt? “Give him socks, with a tie and handkerchief to match,” suggested Fitzgerald’s.
For a lady there were bags galore to choose from — wrist bags, hand bags, dressing bags. How about a table cloth on which to serve afternoon tea, a dinner gong for the hall, or a new apron and cap for the maid?
A gentleman on the move might welcome a suitcase or a shaving set; or a ‘celebrated’ smoking pipe from Wade Bros, (prices ranged from 2s 6d to 30s, in a fancy box).
If he was fortunate enough to own one of the new motorcars (there were probably up to a thousand cars, buses and lorries in Cork city and county in 1912), then maybe a pair of gentlemen’s driving gloves, or some motor mufflers.
One could always fall back on a good book. Heading up the list of Christmas books at O’Keefe’s in George’s Street were: Chambers’ Encyclopaedia (all 10 volumes could be bought for £4), and the complete works of Charles Dickens. Meanwhile, Foley’s in Patrick Street recommended as presents Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanac, and, for children, the British Boys and British Girls annuals.
They say Christmas is for children, and certainly Cork’s shops had everything to thrill the “little folk”. Party shoes, party frocks, dancing sandals, and, of course games and toys, from a penny.
And what a lovely present a bicycle might make. JT Mulligan’s emporium in King Street had plenty of those to choose from, as well as lamps, bells, cyclometers and ‘inflators’.
Gifts needed to suit every pocket&. Messrs Kiloh & Co, 108 Patrick Street boasted the “lowest possible prices” for its perfumes, manicures and shaving sets. Hilser Brothers in Grand Parade claimed to be the “cheapest house for jewellery”.
Very good value could be found too at one of Cork’s oldest shops, JW Dowden, where a dozen handkerchiefs could be bought for less than a guinea — though not the ones in “dainty boxes” available at Allman and Co in Winthrop Street.
Finally, if you were looking for a Christmas present with a difference, how about some coal from the Cork Coal Company? Not a piece of coal for a naughty boy or girl who deserved nothing better, but a whole ton of the stuff. “Free from dirt and slack”, and surely “very acceptable to rich and poor alike”.
Christmas present problem? Humbug! As Mangan’s pointed out, Cork’s shops a hundred years ago could provide “suitable and pleasing ideas of high quality at reasonable prices”.
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