On Thursday morning, December 25, 1890, The Hartford Courant reported that Christmas Eve had seen stores crowded with shoppers and train delays of up to an hour due to heavy travel. As was the case earlier in the week, many retailers stayed open until 11:00 p.m. or even midnight to serve locals as well as those who had journeyed to the capital city from rural areas. During the 1890s, shoppers might visit Brown, Thomson and Co., a major department store of the time. There, in addition to purchasing holiday items, they could view the store’s large Christmas tree, which was billed as “a sight that will delight young and old.”
Spruce Trumps Hemlock as Tree of Choice
Shops not only displayed trees but sold them as well. One merchant reported selling 300 trees, all spruce, on Christmas Eve the year prior. Their price tags ranged from 50¢ to $5.00. The shopkeeper noted that customers favored spruce trees because their branches were stronger than those of hemlocks, another variety sold elsewhere for the season’s festivities.
Although growers in the Norfolk area had initially supplied spruce trees to the store, that source had been exhausted. Orders now went to farms as far away as Sarasota Springs, New York, and Vermont, where dealers could purchase large enough quantities of spruce to meet demand. Still, local vendors were not out of the picture and had claimed a share of the estimated 1,000 spruce sold in Hartford that year.
Traders, as well as Shoppers, Flock to Hartford
During the weeks before Christmas, farmers and other traders also came to Hartford to sell Christmas trees, foodstuffs, and other wares. These sales took place at markets or right on the streets. Those who arrived early reportedly did brisk business, particularly “…vendors of Connecticut poultry, whose long line had stood all day backed up against the sidewalk, ….” Even after most merchants had departed the city with “purses full of Hartford money or wagons loaded with Hartford goods,” some “eleventh-hour traders” remained in hopes of offloading the last of their products before returning home. “One belated farmer,” reported the newspaper, “kept his wagonload of still unsold Christmas turkeys on State Street well into the silent watches of the night.”
Lest these tales of street vendors conjure too romantic a vision of shopping in Hartford of 1890, another article in the same edition of the Courant noted that snow would be a welcome sight in the city because it would cover the refuse clogging street gutters. In them sat “a variety of fruit remains, including decayed oranges, banana peels, apple cores; old meat bones; ashes once used in thick layers on the ice-coated sidewalks; sticks, and on Main Street especially, a great quantity of loose stones; with any amount common dirt and street filth.”
Making Spirits Bright
For Christmas day itself, Hartford residents who celebrated the holiday could choose from an array of activities, including church services, dinners, theatrical performances, dance parties, and even a polo match pitting Hartford’s team against that of Springfield, Massachusetts. And, in the day’s true spirit, charitable souls planned to bring a Christmas tree and gifts to children at the Hartford Orphan Asylum.