Imagine yourself back in December 1925, with Christmas fast approaching, in London where:
All the pavements are alive this week with purchasers moving in ceaseless procession from window to window as they search for the particular Christmas gift for the particular person who is to receive it. They wander down street after street, for London nowadays is the finest city in which to purchase a gift – humble, rich, or rare – that the world knows.
It’s time for Christmas shopping, and there’s no better city on earth (at least according to The Sphere) in which to search for your presents in the 1920s. And it’s an exciting time, for in the ‘last few days before Christmas London presents a gay and festive appearance.’ The shops ‘are brilliantly lighted,’ the pavements are crowded, and after the horror and the deprivation of the First World War, there is something especially poignant about Christmas shopping in the 1920s:
The shops are fuller than they have been for several years at this time, and there are many things, particularly eatables, which are making their first appearance since 1914.
And so, with the 1921 Census of England and Wales soon to be published by our sister site Findmypast, we thought we would take a look at the items that might have been on people’s Christmas lists in the 1920s. What were the must have presents of the decade? Using newspapers taken from the era, we will whisk you through the top ten Christmas presents to give in the 1920s, from handkerchiefs to banjos, from dance frocks to hoovers.
But before we get into our top ten, first we will take a look at where you might go to make your purchases. With London at the epicentre of Christmas shopping, at least in the 1920s, where was the best place to go in search of presents in the city? Luckily, The Sphere in December 1925 was on hand to advise, with the choice of three shopping locations.
You had the option of Kensington High Street, which ‘is always a delightful centre for Christmas shopping, and has its own particular clientele as well as London’s general throng of purchasers,’ and Bond Street, which ‘is full from end to end with the riches of the world awaiting your purchase – jewellery, knick-knacks, and delights of all kinds.’ And if you weren’t enticed by either of these city streets, there was always Knightsbridge to fall back on, which could ‘boast of some of the finest Christmas displays to be seen in London.’
And now, without any further ado, let’s plunge into one of these warm, beguiling, shops from the cold of a London December, and choose which gifts we will be giving our loved ones this year.
As The Sphere observes in December 1920, the spirit of that particular Christmas season was ‘undoubtedly’ one of utility, ‘of a practical outlook on the question of practical gifts.’ Only two years after the end of the First World War, this is not surprising, and in this spirit of utility the newspaper recommends that there are ‘no more acceptable gifts…than handkerchiefs.’
Available at Debenham and Freebody’s, Wigmore Street, was a ‘splendid assortment’ of handkerchiefs to entice shoppers, The Sphere detailing how:
There are pure linen handkerchiefs with a hand-embroidered initial for 19s 6d per dozen, and pure linen cambric handkerchiefs are 23s 6d per dozen.
A Christmas gift of twelve handkerchiefs from Debenham and Freebody’s, therefore, would set you back between £28 and £34 in today’s money.
Along the same practical lines, The Sphere in December 1920 also suggests giving pencils as a Christmas gift, for ‘Everybody loves good pencils, and has a use for them.’ But it wasn’t just any old pencil that this publication recommended to purchase, no indeed. The Sphere recommends ‘the famous Venus Pencil,’ a gift which ‘is always welcome.’
But what was so special about the Venus Pencil? The Sphere explains:
‘Venus’ Pencils are made in seventeen blacklead gradations, 6B to 9H…’Venus’ Pencils are always smooth and gritless, and, best of all they are really economical. They do not cut away to nothing.
You could pick up a Venus Pencil at any stationer, where they were available singly or in a box of a dozen, a dozen being ‘an appreciated gift.’
In December 1923 The Tatler observes how ‘Cigarettes have probably solved more Christmas gifts than anything else,’ being a ‘good choice’ and moreover forming an ‘inexpensive present.’ A gift of cigarettes is not something we think of being a particularly festive present today, but in the 1920s the giving of cigarettes and other smoking novelties was a perfectly common occurrence.
Indeed, The Tatler writes how that when the brand given is ‘one of well-known quality, such as Piccadilly, there are few things that can give greater pleasure.’ Alongside the gift of the cigarettes themselves, the smoker could be provided with a ‘handsome metal cabinet in bronze and blue, fitted with hinged lids,’ in which to store their present. This extra gifting flourish, The Tatler notes, would be ‘inevitably’ responsible for ‘causing the present popularity of the cigarette to soar higher than ever.’
And there were other novelties on the market to give the smoker in your life. For example, The Sketch in December 1927 details a ‘mask of a girl’s head’ which disguised a cigarette box, and was available to buy from Marshall and Snelgrove’s, Oxford Street, at the cost of 39s 6d, or approximately £57 today.
Meanwhile, a cigarette inkstand, recommended also by The Sketch in December 1927, could make a ‘really clever and practical gift.’ Contained within a writing desk were 200 cigarettes, alongside an ‘ink-well and scarlet quill pen.’ This item was remarkably reasonable too, costing just 10s 6d or £21 today, which was ‘but sixpence more than the ordinary price for 200 cigarettes.’
We tend to think of the 1920s as a time of parties and dancing, and this next suggestion from The Sketch would certainly help to get the party started. For as the publication observes, ‘This is the season for parties and dances without end,’ where, vitally, the ‘before-dinner cocktail plays an important part’ in such festivities.
And so thinking along these lines, ‘an ideal gift to a hospitable family or friends’ would be a case of Gordon’s cocktails, containing ‘such favourites as Manhattan, Martini, and Gordon’s Perfect.’ Such a case would set you back 63 shillings, or £129 today.
But perhaps cocktails weren’t your thing? In that case you might like to gift a ‘Whisky That Matters,’ as recommended again by The Sketch. This particular whisky was Young’s Mountain Dew, ‘which was first blended in 1797, and re-modelled in 1834.’ It had won the Grand Prix at Brussels in 1926, and the Highest Award at Nice in 1927, a perfect gift for any ‘connoisseur.’
5. Dance Frocks
But what to wear to these fabulous festive parties? The Sphere in December 1920 writes how:
Everyone is searching for gifts that shall be thoroughly useful, and it is a well known fact that a dance is ever pleasanter when one knows that one is well dressed.
And The Sphere suggests a trip to Woolland Brothers in Knightsbridge, where you could purchase some ‘inexpensive dance frocks for 6 1/2 and 7 1/2 guineas,’ or about £197 and £228 today. Available for the former price you could buy a ‘charming affair of glacé silk trimmed with ribbon and flowers,’ and for the latter, more expensive price, you could gift a ‘black velveteen frock.’
So we have the outfits, and a well-stocked bar, what other gift could help kickstart a truly 1920s party, or indeed, provide entertainment at home during all times of the year? The Sphere in December 1926 writes how ‘The modern gramophone offers possibilities for a very charming and delightful gift.’ Available from His Master’s Voice (HMV), such ‘present day models’ could:
…reproduce music so magnificently that many people prefer gramophone music by the fireside to the discomfort of going out to a concert.
The cheapest gramophone available from His Master’s Voice cost £7 (or £287 today), whilst The Sphere featured model No. 156, which cost £20 in oak (£821 today), or £23 in mahogany (£944 today).
7. ‘Everything A Man Could Desire’
Meanwhile, in December 1923 The Tatler warned how ‘men dislike very much being overlooked at Christmas-time,’ and recommends a trip to Peter Robinson’s at Oxford Street, which was ‘full of ideas and suggestions that include the last word in Fair Isle style all-wool sweaters, cardigans, gloves, etc,’ to remedy this particular problem.
It also details the ‘Shaving Grace’ of presents for men, the Wilkinson Safety Shaver, which was ‘an excellent means of ensuring a good, comfortable shave all the year round.’ Prices for such safety sets ranged from 8s 6d to £3 3s, or from £12 to £91 today.
The Sphere in December 1926 suggests visiting Grieves’ at Old Bond Street, for there ‘is to be seen everything that a man can desire, from boots to hats.’ But the publication advises steering clear of these items, instead it recommends picking ‘socks, ties, handkerchiefs, or mufflers’ as the Christmas present for the man in your life.
8. Electric Suction Cleaners
But now for something a little more modern, for the 1920s were, after all, a decade of innovations (find out more about some of the era’s most intriguing inventions here), there was the ‘Electric Suction Cleaner,’ or, as we would call it today, the hoover.
The Sphere in December 1926 prefaces its introduction of this labour saving device by stating:
In these days of high income tax a useful gift is sure of a warm welcome.
And that useful gift was the ‘new suction cleaner,’ available from the Siemens and English Electric Lamp Company at Upper Thames Street. ‘Of outstanding merit,’ the new gadget is praised as being ‘one of the most useful appliances in the home of to-day.’ Indeed, with ‘its exceptionally powerful suction,’ the suction cleaner could ‘positively remove all dirt and dust with a minimum of effort,’ making the perfect Christmas present, to tidy up once all the festivities were over!
9. Banjos and Ukuleles
We’ve looked at what the men of the 1920s might be given, and indeed the women, but what about those tricky teenagers of the day, and the despairing uncles with little or no clue of what to gift them at Christmas?
The Sketch had every such uncle’s back in 1927 when it addressed those uncles who ‘never know what to give nephews and nieces whose ages are between fourteen and twenty.’ For this problematic age, the publication suggests a visit to Keith Prowse, where the ‘very thing’ could be had in ukuleles, which could be had for 35s, or £71 today.
The establishment also stocked a ‘banjolele banjo,’ which had been recently popularised by one of the decade’s greatest celebrities, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Having been provided to the Prince, The Sketch remarks that the gift of a banjo would ‘ensure its enthusiastic reception everywhere.’ The Prince’s banjo, however, was pricier than the ukulele, coming in at £2 6s, or £94.
The 1920s will always be remembered as a golden age of cinema (and indeed, cinema going, which you can read about here), with stars of the silent screen becoming household names, the decade witnessing the transition into ‘talkies.’ And so perhaps our most desirable item of this list is described by M.E. Brooke for The Tatler in December 1926, who labels the gift as ‘A Novel Christmas Present,’ which will give ‘lasting pleasure.’
The item was a ‘cinematograph for the home,’ which Brooke remarks will:
…strike just that note of novelty which is so often appallingly lacking, and it ensure for the giver the satisfaction of knowing that his or her gift will be thoroughly appreciated.
Brooke advises a visit, for those wishing to purchase a home video camera, to the ‘attractive shop’ of Wallace Heaton Ltd on New Bond Street. Available to buy there was the ‘little Baby Ciné Outfit,’ which cost £10 (£410 today), the Ciné Kodak model, which showed 16mm film at a cost of £16 (£670 today), or you could go for the ‘Rolls-Royce of cinematography – the Bell Howell Filmo Outfit.’
The Bell Howell Filmo Outfit consisted of a camera and projector, which cost £120 (over £4,900 today), and was described as being ‘a real masterpiece of mechanical precision.’
Whilst for many such cameras would have been out of reach for Christmas presents, such gift ideas represent the aspirations and dreams that many would have held during the 1920s. But moreover, the spirit of Christmas and the gift giving that it entailed was of renewed importance at this time, a time of peace after a long spell of devastating war, for as The Sphere reflected in December 1920:
This Yuletide will afford us the chance of doing many kindnesses, coupled with the opportunity of supplying some real want.
Meanwhile, what gift from the 1920s would you put on your Christmas list? What other historic Christmas presents can you discover on The Archive? Begin your search here, today!