Christmas a Century Ago

Anthony Borgo
December 2018

As we prepare for the holidays, I thought that it might be nice to provide a snapshot of what Christmas was like in Whiting 100 years ago.  The year was 1918.  The tallest structure on Earth was the Eiffel Tower. The average price of bread was 10 cents, butter cost 58 cents, and eggs went for 57 cents. The most popular car was the Model T and cost about $500 or $8,500 today.  A gallon of gas, which cost about 25 cents, was often purchased at general stores not gas stations.  And, America had just ended the war to end all wars.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the American Red Cross was accepting gifts for the men in the American Expeditionary Forces at their Christmas Headquarters located at the Sullivan-Tokarz Real Estate office. In addition, some soldiers even made it home for the holidays.  Walter Wuestenfelt, Lloyd Buchanan, Frank Dugan, Oscar Ahlgren, Edward Schaaf, Earl Etter, and William Sullivan were all granted furlough and were able to spend Christmas with their families in Whiting.

Unfortunately, for one Whiting family they received devastating news just days before Christmas.  According to the December 23, 1918 edition of the Hammond Times, Marcus Woodward, brother of Dickson Woodward, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, was killed in action near Verdun the day before the armistice was signed.  “Whiting’s heart is again torn, owing to the fact that another one of her young heroes has lost his life, after having been through the thickness of the war from its inception.”  Woodward was only 19 years old. He served with Company A of the 131st Infantry under the command of Colonel Sanborn. 

Mrs. H. A. Woodward received a letter from Jerome Williams, a chaplain in the United States Army.  “He (Marcus) was killed in battle on Nov. 10th north of Verdun, just two kilometers east of Sivery.  Our troops were making a rapid advance and he was out in the open going after the enemy in great haste when he received the fatal shot.” 

Although the Woodward family was experiencing tragedy, other people throughout the community were enjoying the merriment that the season brings.  The Princess Theatre and the Star Theatre had plenty of entertainment lined up for the holidays.  Likewise, the Congregational Church had a special concert in the works as well.

The Princess Theatre was a hot spot during the month of December.  Every night during the week before Christmas, the theater raffled off a Christmas turkey to one lucky theater goer.  In addition, on Christmas Eve the Princess was giving away a fully dressed Christmas goose courtesy of the Tittle Bros.  The advertisement stated that the goose was “all ready to put in the oven.” 

For the town’s viewing pleasure was a film starring Bessie Barriscale titled “Cast-Off.”  According to American Film Institute the synopsis is as follows, “Pansy May leaves an orphanage to work in Mrs. Hendon-Ware's boardinghouse but is constantly ridiculed by the snobbish boarders. When she learns that Guy Henley, who had posed as her champion, actually is in league with the boarders, she resolves to seek revenge.”  On Christmas Day the Princess Theatre showcased a “Special Holiday Vaudeville.”  The four act spectacle featured an O Henry story, a Mack Sennet Comedy, and several other seasonal skits. 

Not to be outdone, the folks at the Star Theatre debuted the new Douglas Fairbanks’ picture titled “Bound in Morocco.”  According to the ad, Fairbanks is “a loose-fisted, sharp-tongued American (who) runs amuck in the Sultan’s harem, saves the queen, busts up – oh what’s the use? You know Douglas Fairbanks.”

The Congregational Church reminded its flock “what the real reason for the season is” with its Christmas Cantata.  A cantata is a medium-length narrative piece of music for voices with instrumental accompaniment, typically with solos, chorus, and orchestra.  The piece was titled “Faith and Praise” and was led under the direction of P. E. Crundwell of Indiana Harbor, with organ accompaniment by Jessie Curtis Smith.

Local retailers were just as savvy in 1918 as they are today, ensuring that their shoppers were rushing home with their treasures.  H. Gordon and Son, a popular department store at the time, ran several ads in the newspaper daily with helpful suggestions on what to buy for your loved ones. “Perhaps one of the pretty new mid-winter hats of fur and satin combinations will do. Particularly silk hosiery just the qualities and colors you want. A corset properly fitted dainty attractive camisoles or brassieres. From our Fancy Work Department hand-made library table scarfs, yokes, center-pieces, towels and handkerchiefs with tattering edges.”

And let’s not forget the Whiting children of 1918.  That year the popular toys were teddy bears, tinker toys, electric trains, and erector sets.  However, the boys and girls in Whiting were more concerned about a mysterious woman roaming the busy sidewalks and she wasn’t dressed in holiday styles.  According to a Hammond Times article dated December 24, 1918, a real-life Christmas ghost was seen in Whiting.

“Is Santa afraid of spooks?  Can the Mysterious Woman in Black keep him from the chimney tops and firesides of Whiting? Will Christmas be a day of tear-stained childish faces? These questions have been uppermost in the minds of Whiting people for several days.”  However, The Times set the record straight.  After radioing the North Pole, the newspaper received the following response.

“Merry Christmas to the dear little boys and girls of Lake County.  How could you be so foolish as to think a poor woman who hasn’t any better sense than to walk around the streets from midnight until morning could keep me from my favorite towns? No woman ever frightened your Uncle Santa. No siree. My reindeers and I will be there with bells on.  But in order to avoid any delay by meeting the Woman in Black we will go to Whiting early.  Not that I care anything about spooks. So have the little boys and girls of Whiting go to bed early tonight – right after supper – because I can’t come until they are all asleep. With best wishes for a Merry and Happy New Year, Santa Clause.”

This brief glimpse into the past is my gift to you, Merry Christmas Whiting, Indiana.