The catalogues of Christmas past

The great London department store Gamages was the British Amazon of its day

Artillery Row

Moon lamps, temperature control smart mugs and video game consoles might be high on many Christmas wish lists this year… but it was a very different story a century ago.

To see just how much the in-demand festive presents of today and yesteryear have changed, just flick through the pages of the Gamages’ 1913 Christmas catalogue. Gamages was one of the great London department stores of the past, famed for its toy and magic departments. Its closure in 1972 was mourned by both the press and the public.

Well-heeled customers could despatch gifts ‘throughout the Empire’

In its heyday Gamages, like the other big department stores, had a mail order department enabling well-heeled customers to despatch gifts to family and friends “throughout the Empire” and beyond, since as the catalogue observed: “In the nature of things there must always be a huge army of Englishmen permanently engaged in the administration and commerce of our colonies.” It was arguably the British Amazon of its day. In a way, the choice of festive goods up for grabs was just as impressive then as now. You just had to have the means to afford them.

At the front of the Gamages catalogue were four pages of special Christmas crackers: everything from Eastern Beauties (crackers in brightly coloured Japanese paper with Japanese toys) to Amateur Orchestral (containing a miniature trumpet, musical cigar and whistle).

If I’d been a boy back then, I suspect the little sailor in me would have begged my parents (who would have needed to be comfortably off to shop there) to buy me a Dreadnought-shaped box of 12 crackers (12/2, or 12 shillings and two old pence) containing miniature sailor figures and models of battleships, as well as tiny anchors and cannon.

The catalogue also featured an entertaining “Tricks, Jokes and Puzzles for Xmas” section with a variety of gifts designed to amuse: everything from The “Yelit” Squeaker “for imitating various animals” or producing “unearthly noises in Punch and Judy shows”, to A Snake Purse — a purse with a large fake snake inside which would “spring out” and give the perpetrator “a shock to his system” the moment he “attempts to snatch the purse from its owner”.

One advert promoted sealskin fur caps ‘for your motoring friends’

The latest technological innovations of the time were reflected on other pages of the catalogue. One advert promoted sealskin fur caps “for your motoring friends” at just 12/6 each. Driving in the open-top cars of the day would have been perishingly cold in winter. and the sealskin caps were “very warm”. Motor foot muffs (4/6) were another item on offer on a page headlined: “Acceptable presents for your motoring friends”.

Alternatively, customers could “give a Zonophone this Christmas” (£8 8s) to a loved one. It embodied all that was best “in talking machine construction” and let “everyone obtain… fun and laughter… during the Festive Season” by listening to recordings of “the cream of vaudeville” — that is, the stars of music hall such as Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd.

For the fashionable lady there was a stylish red squirrel scarf (11/9) “made from 6 clear solid skins, trimmed 4 tails and with split end”. How far could you walk down Regent Street today in a red squirrel scarf, before being reprimanded for wearing something that had involved the killing of so many innocent creatures?

Girls’ toy dolls were a popular Christmas gift of the time and none more so than “Gamage’s famous Phyllis Doll”, with “jointed limbs, sleeping eyes and sewn wigs” (1/- and up). The Phyllis doll was a chubby-cheeked, dark curly-haired young woman in a knee-dress a very different sort of doll to today’s model-like blonde Barbie with her super-slim figure. “Phyllis” (can you imagine a girl wanting a doll called “Phyllis” today?) reflected the era’s ideal of the wholesome-looking young woman.

Naughty boys and girls didn’t qualify for Christmas stockings

If your little sweetheart wanted a play pal for Phyllis, you had only to turn over the page to find a walking, talking “Little Sailor Boy” in his “dainty well-made suit and cap” (7/9 for a 15 inch high doll). Every respectable middle-class mother of the time wanted to dress their little boy in a smart blue sailor’s uniform reflecting the esteem with which the Royal Navy, which had for so long defended Britain against its foes, commanded throughout society.

A couple of pages on, the catalogue had adverts for “lucky stockings” for “a good boy” and “a good girl” to “make your child’s happiness complete” — stockings packed with toys and confectionery. Naughty boys and girls obviously didn’t qualify for Christmas stockings in the view of Gamages’ management.

Taking a trip back to the past, via the pages of Gamages’ 1913 Christmas catalogue, you sense that the moneyed classes of the day probably enjoyed just as bountiful a Christmas as the comfortably off do today — many if not most of the festive gifts would have been beyond the pockets of the ordinary working man. For all the hi-tech gadgets on sale this Christmas, part of me would love to travel back in time to that era so that I too could snap up a Yelit Squeaker or a Zonophone… or perhaps even treat my wife to a red squirrel scarf.

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