Black Friday, which has marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season for decades, is not until the day after Thanksgiving, but every year it seems that the Christmas shopping season comes earlier and earlier. This year, in some stores Christmas displays have appeared in September! However, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon — the war effort during WWI meant an early start to the 1918 Christmas shopping season.
That year, newspapers ran advertisements in October urging people to start their shopping early because of the rules issued to retailers by the Council of National Defense. These rules were instituted in order to save on coal and gasoline, but even more important was the fact that stores weren’t going to have the ability to hire as many seasonal employees to keep up with the rush because the manpower was needed elsewhere.
In 1918, the Commercial Economy Board of the Council of National Defense printed a rather detailed report titled Economy in Retail Service that made the case for how streamlining and simplifying deliveries aided the war effort, and even made suggestions on how it was to be done. But this streamlining push actually started in 1917 because the Connecticut State Council of Defense reprinted a July 9, 1917 letter from the Council of National Defense that said the following:
We invoke your assistance in taking immediate steps to bring about economy in the delivery service of retail stores. Thousands of men and vehicles are now unnecessarily employed in the delivery service of retails stores throughout the country, and it seems obvious that in this time of emergency the waste thereby occasioned should no longer be endured.
It went on to say:
The retail stores of the country can dispense with many thousands of men and vehicles and still perform all the necessary delivery service. These men and this equipment could be used far more advantageously for other purposes. There are also in the department stores many men and much equipment unnecessarily employed in delivering small parcels and making extra trips.
Retailers even incorporated the rules into their advertising. For example, the October 24, 1918, edition of the Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer included the following list:
- Sales forces are not to be increased above the yearly average, nor store hours lengthened beyond the normal.
- The public to be urged to buy only useful gifts (except for young children).
- The public to be urged to buy Christmas gifts during October and November.
- Deliveries to be restricted, and the public urged to carry packages wherever possible.
They weren’t alone — other newspapers did the same. The October 30, 1918, edition of the Arizona Republican also published a list of rules and suggestions; and for the most part, they were pretty much the same. There were, however, a few additional suggestions: Number two on their list was to shop early in the day; number four was to send all packages before December 5th if they had to go by mail or express; and number five was to avoid bulky articles if they had to be sent by mail, freight, or express. But the change that caught my eye, was the one to the exception regarding buying useful gifts. The exception said instead that “this does not apply to boys” — it didn’t use the world children.
But retailers saw no need to run boring advertisements with just the rules! The Bismarck Tribune ran two different full-page ads that are featured in this post for the retail merchants in Bismarck. Both included the usual list of rules but also included some eye-catching artwork.
For more information about the early business district of Bismarck, check out the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Bismarck. For those studying the history of advertising in the U.S. there are general overviews like How It Was in Advertising, 1776-1976 and The Rise of Advertising in the United States: A History of Innovation to 1960 while titles like Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999 and Government War Advertising: Report of the Division of Advertising, Committee on Public Information published in 1918 during the war present a more specific focus.