Some images of Christmas in the Kentucky Digital Library told a story of how the world changed in the decade of the 1930s: a 1926 Kaufman's ad, a 1930s interior of a Sears store and a street scene in front of Meyers Brothers Store, both on Main Street in Lexington.
The group seemed like bookends, reflecting a society that changed from the optimism of 1926, with the war to end all wars behind it and an apparently endlessly booming economy, to the less dazzling 1930s, when the country and Kentucky had still not emerged from a devastating depression and a war in Europe dominated the front pages.
An ad in the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, tempted with a treasure trove of gift ideas: jewelry from Skullers ("So desirable," a deferred payment plan available); "Smartly styled" tuxedoes, from Graves Cox, "Imported Dresden dolls," and other items that "prove the good taste of the donor," from a novelty dealer.
In the 1930s the mood is different. The toys in the Sears store aren't fancy or smart, they are the time-honored basics: bicycles, wagons, stick horses, puzzles, dolls. The sign over the door at Meyers Brothers shouts "Practical Xmas Gifts," and the people in front don't seem too enthused.
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It seemed a closer look was in order.
Kentucky had taken some heavy blows even before the crash of 1929. Prohibition, enacted in 1919, had essentially closed down the important industry that produced bourbon and beer, paid a lot of taxes and employed thousands. Coal suffered a downturn as oil production boomed and electric wires were strong across the country.
The 600-plus mines operating in 1927 had shrunk to 451 by 1929.
And then came the crash, which hit hard and fast. About 10 Kentucky banks a year failed during the '20s, but 150 closed between 1930 and 1932. Historian George Blakey reports that of the 2,246 Kentucky industries operating in 1929, only about half survived to 1933; the 77,000 workers shrank by 21,000 in those years.
In the ads merchants ran in the Herald and the Leader, the story is told another way.
In 1926 the world was there for the buying: fancy Turkish towels, fine fruit, new Chevrolets, canaries and love birds. Oysters were 64 cents a quart.
By 1939 words like fancy and luxury have all but disappeared, replaced by more somber, practical offerings: a pair of socks, used cars, warm coats. Oysters had sunk to 40 cents a quart.
The Christmas story is a message of humility and hope. Christmas shopping is a barometer of prosperity and economic optimism, or lack of it.
In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol one man sees his life through the lens of his Christmases, past and future.
Photographs and newspaper ads aren't literature but each Christmas season they offer a reflection of a society's values, fears and hopes. What will future generations see in this year's mirror of Christmas commerce, of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, must-have toys, newest electronics? What do you see?