Holiday Hazards of the Past

Just as stores today take precautions to safeguard holiday shoppers, stores in earlier times also learned lessons from the past.

While some of the measures are no different from safety measures today, some are unique to the time period. A 1929 article in The New York Times (12-6-29) quoted some of the suggestions made by the fire commissioner to prevent fire dangers:

  • Post guards at entrances to stop persons from carrying lighted cigars and cigarettes into the building.
  • Instruct all floor-walkers to stop all smoking by smokers.
  • Do not place paper shades over electric lights.
  • Organize and maintain a fire brigade.

Robbery then and now was a problem, but in 1939 a store executive at Woolworth five-and-ten-cent store located in Times Square went above and beyond the call of duty to foil a hold-up. The theft occurred on the Saturday afternoon before the holiday. The store employee, Marie Ilario, age 24, was walking to the back of the store with a satchel containing $750 worth of cash from the first floor sales registers when James McKinnon, approached her, saying, “Hello, dearie,” Ilario reported (NYT 12-25-39). She was then hit on the head with a man’s sock containing a large cake of soap. Miss Ilario screamed and fell to her knees, and Paul Renke, an assistant manager who was working on a balcony 12 feet above the sales floor heard the scream, saw what happened, and leaped off the balcony and fell upon McKinnon who was soon overpowered by Renke and other employees. A traffic patrolman was outside the store and was called in to make the arrest.

In 1939 a very unexpected problem occurred in downtown Chicago. An elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Gamble, had gone holiday shopping taking their preferred method of travel, their horse and buggy. They hitched the horse to an electric-light post on State Street and went off on their errands. When they returned after completing their shopping, their “equipage” had proven to be such a curiosity that a “few thousand pedestrians” had gathered to look at it. Responding to the concern expressed by the officers who were also waiting for them, the Gambles said they would leave their horse and buggy at home during future holiday outings.

In 1949 a new type of warning appeared. These concerned ways to avoid home robbery and purse snatching. (NYT 12-5-49). Police Commissioner William P. O’Brien issued guidelines to residents that told them to lock up their houses carefully when leaving to go holiday shopping and not leave notes on the mailbox or door, sure signs that no one was home. Women were told not to let their handbags dangle, and the commissioner’s missive suggested not placing handbags on counters while examining merchandise or leaving them on chairs while trying on garments. Motorists were advised to close and lock automobile windows and vents and “to remove the ignition key.” (Love it–what good advice!)

Then, as now, there are those who will use the festivities of the holiday to take advantage of those who are unaware. The exact occurrences are altered by the times but they will happen always.

For more information on shopping and holiday practices of the past, send me an email with “shopping” in the subject line. [email protected] I’ll send you my December e-newsletter.

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