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Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Christmas Shopping 1939

By Nancy Leitz

I don't suppose 1939 was very much different than any other Depression year. It's just that I remember it best because I was 11 years old that year and was allowed to go to 69th Street all by myself to Christmas shop.

I had five gifts to buy for my family and a grand total of $1.00 to spend on them. I smile now when I think of getting all my Christmas shopping done for $1.00 but in those Depression days it was possible.

So around the 15th of December when the season was in full swing and all the decorations were in place and the Christmas carols were being sung on the radio, I would set out on my journey to Woolworth's Five and Ten Cent Store at 69 Sreet.

It was usually cold and blustery as I crossed the bridge over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks at Yeadon Station and continued over Baltimore Avenue past Fernwood Cemetery, then along Long Lane for a mile or so before reaching my destination at the Woolworths on 69th Street.

I must say, it was one of the better Woolworths and always had what I needed to buy. You see, almost every year I bought the very same gifts for my family, and the dollar was allocated in direct proportion to the importance of the family member receiving the gift.

My Mother's gift was always purchased last because it was the most important and the amount spent on it was determined by how much I could skimp on my brothers and sister.

Dad usually asked me to buy him some Violet Water After Shave. It cost 25 cents but Dad was well worth that expense. Funny about him liking that Violet Water because, as I recall, the label said things like "Do not apply near flame or while smoking. Avoid getting in eyes. Positively use only as directed." But he loved splashing it on and smelling wonderful so I always bought it for him and damn the expense. Dad deserved it.

So there was 25 cents gone and 75 cents to go. I could get my sister, Jed, a nice hair ribbon for 10 cents, which left me with 65 cents. If I could find a toy or baseball card for Bob and Jack for about 15 cents each, that would leave me 35 cents for Mother.

Now that was the crux of the problem. If I had only 25 cents I would have to buy Mother a jar of Pond's Cold Cream but if I could get my brothers something cheap and have 35 cents, I could go all out and buy Mother the expensive LADY ESTHER Cold Cream, and that was all the difference in the world to me.

To be able to wrap up a jar of real LADY ESTHER in beautiful paper and a bow was the height of the Christmas experience for me. I didn't care if I had to give my brothers and sister less as long as I could present my Mother with her very favorite face cream.

So the trick was to find something for the boys that cost 15 cents. I would spend an hour or more in that store wandering around the aisles looking at books and toy airplanes and water pistols and finally, with any luck, I would find just the right thing for them for 10 cents each and that left me an extra dime and a huge treat. I could go to the lunch counter and order a hot chocolate for five cents and proudly say "YES" when asked by the waitress if I wanted whipped cream (five cents extra but it included a big red cherry on top) Oh! the decadence. But, sitting there sipping my chocolate, sure now that I would be able to get the best for my Mother, I was the happiest girl in the World.

So over to the cosmetic counter I would go. The rows of face creams would be tempting me but their siren call went unnoticed as I spotted the white jar with the beautiful green lid with LADY ESTHER written on it. That was the height of elegance to me. It even came in a little green and white box. Oh, the joy it gave me to buy that splendid gift.

On Christmas morning my Mother would always exclaim, "Oh, look everybody, Nancy has given me LADY ESTHER face cream. This is the best. Thank you very much."

Then, Christmas would be over for another year but the LADY ESTHER face cream always sat on her bureau all year and every month or so I would open the cap and try to judge how much was left and hope it was enough to last until the next Christmas when I could again give her the most wonderful gift in the world.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Nancy, what a wonderful trip down memory lane. I couldn't begin to tell you what things cost when I was eleven and I do admire your ability to do so. All I remember of purchasing power in those days was that the butcher would throw in a pound of liver free if you bought hamburger. Since I liked liver and onions that was not the disaster that some children thought it was.

Nancy what a lovely gift for your mother! Each day as she used it she would think of you.

I just love this story Nancy. It's amazing how you managed to get five presents with $1.00. I can just hear your mother's pleasure in opening your present. Beautiful.

Nancy, I love this story. Reading about your skills in being economical with what seems, by today's standards, to be such a small amount of money -- it reminds me of reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time -- when I was 11! It's a story I adore and have revisited regularly -- I'm now 30. I love hearing your story. There was talk, in a recent TGB post about Facebook, about how the entitlement lots of young people experience today can lead to real ignorance and disrespect. It feels good to hear about a time when things were not so easy ... thanks!

I love the story too, Nancy, and you reminded me of when I went out to buy my mom's Christmas present in 1947 and got hit by a car. The perfume I bought for her (Blue Waltz) broke under me when I fell. I smelled like the proverbial wh*re house on nickel night!

Thank you for your kind comments.

It means so much to me to know that you are reading my stories and enjoying them.


Yes, I think it did mean a lot to my Mother. She made a great fuss over the cream and ME. She made everything worth any effort you put forth for her.


Yes, imagine getting all those gifts for $1.00. But remember how hard it was in those days to get a dollar.

I know you will be leaving soon to visit the grandchildren, so take care and have a wonderful visit.


I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,too. What a story. Remember little Francie and her brother going out on Christmas Eve to try to get a Christmas tree? And the mean tree salesman who told the kids that they could have the tree if they could catch it when he THREW it at them.

Oh, that was a wonderful book.

Lisa, I'm so happy that you liked my story. Thanks!


Sorry to hear that you were hit by a car when you were out buying "Blue Waltz" perfume for your Mom. Ah!
My Mom's perfume of choice in those days was the ever popular "Evening in Paris". Hope you were all right after the accident.

Happy Holidays to All.....

Oh, Nancy. Thank y ou so much for sharing this wonderful story.

hello Mage,

Thank you for always reading my stories, and for letting me know that you liked them.

It really does mean a lot to me.

What a wonderful story, Nancy. It brought back memories for me of shopping for my parents anniversary present at Leonards Dept. store in Fort Worth, Texas. I bought a carving set (who knows why). My mom still has the fork after 50 years and a lot of moves. Good reminder, too, to reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Hello Sharry,

I think a carving set is a wonderful gift, and obviously your Mom did,too!

Isn't it special to you that she still has part of that set after all these years and many moves?

Glad you liked the story and,yes, that book is well worth reading again. Thank Lisa for that reminder.

I spent a ridiculous amount of money yesterday on face cream and eye cream, and I thought of my long dead mother who used Lady Esther Face Cream all of her life. Today, I Googled Lady Esther face cream, and found this wonderful story. I'll bookmark the site and come back often. Thank you for reminding me.

Thanks for the wonderful story. I had thought Lady Esther was the less expensive cold cream, it was supposed to be the face cream for the working woman, or so I was told. Lady Esther was my great-grandmother and I'd like to save your story for a scrap book I am making to hand down to my children.

In 1939, I was 6 and we lived in an upstairs apartment on one of the two blocks of stores in my little town. One of the stores was a 5-and-dime. And yes, I would have about a dollar to buy gifts for everyone in my small family.I loved the bins full of desirable little objects for 5 or 10 cents each: little wooden paddles with a tiny red ball attached by a rubber string, jacks and balls, miniature baby dolls, marbles, and my favorite--little paper umbrellas. And of course, the ubiquitous dark blue bottle of "Evening in Paris." Thanks for the memories. I facilitate a group of women my age & older in a memoir writing group--thanks for our next theme topic!

ps. I meant to comment that I had only to go downstairs and cross the street to get there, but it was a special event anyway.

My mother used Lady Esther's Face Cream, as did I when I started wearing makeup and I have never used anything else. When I run out, I search online and hope I can still find it. I so enjoyed your Christmas story Nancy, and I remember how good it felt to be able to get my mother something she really liked. I don't know who felt more special.

Thank you, Barbara, for your wonderful comment.

I am happy that you enjoyed the story and hope you read some of the others at this site.

If you look on the right you will see STORYTELLERS.Click that and a drop down box will give you the names of all the storytellers.Click the name, and the titles of all their stories will appear and by clicking a title, the story will appear for you to read.

Hope we see you back here at Ronni Bennett's site again and maybe you will write a story for us to read.

Thanks again for dropping by.

Thank you for this story. I am trying to learn more about my father's life and maybe write some stories about it-so I found your story looking for info about 1939. I think I will stay on the site and read more stories!

What a wonderful story, I bought my father Old Spice for many years, and yes, I shopped at our dime store (J.J. Newberry) and a Coke, big enough to share, was a nickel. Thank you for bringing back the memories!

Hello Kayla,

Imagine my surprise to see you here five years after I wrote this story.
Oh, yes, please write about your father and,if you do, send your story to Ronni Bennett and have it published here for all of us to read and enjoy.

I'll be looking for it. Send your story to ronni@ronnibennett.com

Hi Marcy,

Yes, Old Spice was very much like the Violet Water my Dad loved, and Newberry's was a terrific store in the same mold as Woolworth's.

I'm delighted that I brought back wonderful memories to you and I hope to see you here at the Elder Storytelling Place again SOON!

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