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Christmas Story: 1919

December 1919. "Baker Christmas tree." Secretary of War Newton Baker, wife Elizabeth and children Jack, Betty and little Peggy. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size. More Xmas awesomeness here.

December 1919. "Baker Christmas tree." Secretary of War Newton Baker, wife Elizabeth and children Jack, Betty and little Peggy. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size. More Xmas awesomeness here.


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Newton Baker in 1919 had been in public service for almost his entire career and did not have much money. But he established a law firm with two other partners and after he left government service in 1921 he was better able to build his net worth a bit.

"Nutcracker" 1915

PBS has been broadcasting San Francisco Ballet's Edwardian "Nutcracker."

The conceit is to set this "Nutcracker" in 1915, during the Panama-Pacific Exposition. During the overture, there is a kind of slide show of vintage photographs. At the beginning of the family gathering scene, Father triumphantly plugs in the newfangled Christmas tree lights.

(In addition, this production has a very sweet and positive take on Clara's balancing between childhood and the threshold of womanhood.)


I don't believe this photo allows us to say that the walls and carpet were shabby or threadbare. This low contrast black and white photo could be hiding something that was much more impressive. Flat != threadbare.

I also take issue with the poorly shaped tree remarks. Artificial trees are of course perfectly shaped, at least according to the ideal shape that society has defined. Even the real trees have been cut and shaped to be more acceptable. This was taken in an era that accepted more diversity in its trees, obviously! An era when the choice and shape of a given tree could help define the memory of that year and that Christmas in one's mind. As with fine wines, not all the years were the same. The search for excellence does not necessitate artificial perfection.

I'll take even a "poorly shaped" tree any day over the plastic and metal monstrosities that people use these days, transporting the season's dust from one year to the next. "Oh, look, here's the dust from 2009! Do you remember that?"

Inflation Adjustment

The Parzeo ad shows a "nine light xmas tree unit" for $3.45. That'd be about $43 today. Think about how many lights you can buy today for $43. My God, I love being alive in the 21st century!

That's Progress

I am amazed at the criticism of the contents of this picture from 1919. That is how the most prosperous citizens lived at that time. Viewers should take this as a visual teaching moment --- to understand just how much progress we have made in the intervening 90 years. The vast majority of Americans live in a rich splendor that the most prosperous class in 1919 could not imagine.

And, ahem, compare the impact of capitalism in America on the population living standards in the last 90 years with the impact of communism on its population in the same period.

Worth a thought.

Xmas Askew

Not only is that tree as crooked as a dog's hind leg (something I remember my brother complaining about when we would go looking for a tree when I was a kid), it also looks like it's tied to the light fixture on the wall to keep from falling over. Charlie Brown really does come to mind.

This is what happens

when you let the children choose the tree and decorate it themselves.

Is it really THAT bad?

There have been a lot of comments about the drabness and tattered finery in this pic, but I wonder if a lot of it simply has to do with the quality of the negative. Is the rug really threadbare, or could the sheen or design of it appear to be so, when in fact it was in acceptable condition. It hardly seems fitting that the Secretary of War would live on the verge of poverty. I know this will raise some cackles among purists, but how about one of you colorizers taking this photo to task and see if we can't really find the Christmas spirit in it.

Artificial Christmas trees.

I think we have found the reason for artificial Christmas trees. I wouldn't let that tree in my house. That piano would be worth a small fortune today.

Radio for the kiddies!

Washington Post ad from December 14, 1919. Wireless telegraphy/telephony sets for the kiddies, and Christmas lights!

[Note that the name of Parezo Electric is misspelled. - Dave]

Jack at the wireless

reminds me of myself 50 years later! I had a record player for a present at that age. Took it with us on the family summer vacation. I grew up to be a sound engineer; wonder what Jack turned out to be?

Miniature Christmas

Very interesting to see the downsized piano and the bed. Dad doesn't want Mother to stand up. If she does he will also be in miniature. Also, someone else write about the tree.

Branches here and there

Today, we would never settle for a tree as unsymmetrical as this.

Were things really that drab in 1919

Mabye it's the black and white photography but I find this photo oddly depressing. I think it's because of how the wallpaper and carpet photographed. The dresses the females are wearing however are beautiful (especially the little girl's). You can't buy that kind of cloth today.

Well, isn't that delightful?!

There's young Jack, tuning his new crystal set with the "cat's whisker" (no doubt using the strands of metallic tinsel as a receiving antenna), as his little sister, wearing her first wristwatch, tinkles the ivories on her new midget Steinway grand.

Meanwhile, elder sister Betty daydreams about her boyfriend as she rips pine needles off a branch -- "He loves me, he loves me not ... "

Aah, Christmas!

Dear Santa

I would like a pair of shoes just like Mrs. Baker's.

Thank you!

The firm that Jack built

Newton D. Baker was the mayor of Cleveland from 1912 to 1915 and Secretary of War from 1916 to 1921. His son Newton Diehl "Jack" Baker III founded the law firm of Baker & Hostetler, the 94th largest law firm in the world today.

The contrast

between the shabby surroundings and the largesse bestowed on these obviously beloved children is stunning.

It's the Dickens

I think I see the ghost of Christmas past.

Some things never change

Jack would be just as comfortable today as he was in 1919. Only the headphones that he would have today would prevent any outside noise (his parents) from interfering with the volume. The other difference would be his attire, a T shirt and jeans would be acceptable. The other thing that would be the same would be his oldest sister, who would be nagging him big time.

That Christmas tree

was decorated in fifteen minutes or less.

What Would Jackie Do?

Newton D. Baker House, also known as Jacqueline Kennedy House, was built in 1794. It was home to the Secretary of War from 1916 to 1920 while he presided over America's mass mobilization of men and material in World War I. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy purchased the house and lived here for about a year. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The house has many architectural details including a wide limestone stairway, pink-painted lintels with keystones, brick voussoirs, Doric pilasters and a semi-elliptical fanlight.

Charlie Brown called

and he wants his tree back. I don't mean to be a Christmas tree snob, but that is one ugly piece of vegetation. Plus the fact it looks like they spent about five minutes decorating it. Bah Humbug.

Rock on!

Looks like little Jack got the 1919 equivalent of an iPod for Christmas.

Contest Entry?

A neighborhood Clumsy Christmas Tree Contest is the only reasonable explanation for this grotesque tree.

If he only knew

Bet little Marconi there could not even imagine that in less than 90 years, ordinary kids his age would have their own iPods, CDs and Bluetooth gadgets. Great little piano there also. Nice family and it looks like everyone got what they wanted. Of course, as in my own childhood, kids got ONE present per child, not 15 or 20. Try doing that today.

Lovely, but

What a lovely picture! Isn't it odd though, the contrasts in this shot. There is such finery: the wife's dress and shoes are gorgeous as are most of their clothes, but then you have such a threadbare rug and things are a bit worn around the edges -- check out the leg of the chair Mrs. Baker is sitting on. Was that normal, do you suppose, for the tree to be so large that it sort of smashed against the ceiling like that?

We hardly Newt ye

Previously Mayor of Cleveland, this is the man responsible for the draft.

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