GUEST COLUMN • Christmas Past In Hillsboro

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Today, people often long for the simplicity of Christmases past, free of Black Friday, the endless hustle, and the neverending shopping lists.  At Christmas in Hillsboro in the 1890s, there was a little of everything.

While Christmas was less of a rush 125 years ago, there were still some of the elements that we know today. Commercialism was more subtle, but shopping was a big part of the season.

In a time before television, radio, and the Internet, businesses reached out to consumers with newspaper advertisements. Holiday-themed ads annually dotted the pages of the local papers for the month before Christmas.

The anticipation was high in 1891, as the Hillsboro Journal anxiously reported on Nov. 13, “only six weeks ‘til Christmas.”

Last-minute shopping was bustling on Christmas Eve 1891, as the Journal noted “the business houses were thronged by citizens…all making final purchases for the Christmas stocking.” The paper cracked that “there were a few old socks that Santa Claus missed last night.”

That same year, the business of D.D. Goad enticed shoppers, as the Journal reported, with  a  “very large and beautiful Christmas tree in his grocery store.”  Prices were the draw at merchant R.G. Walling, who advertised in the Journal on Dec. 18, 1891 to “see my stock of toys. I have as nice a line as you will find in the city [and] I will sell them as cheap as any house in town.”

Below that was an ad for Louis Welge and his “new store building,” where he offered “general holiday goods…so low in price that you cannot help but buy.” Gift selections included furniture and a “domestic sewing machine.”

Other holiday favorites were found that year at W.C. Miller, including one of the most popular selections of all – handkerchiefs. Many went for five, ten, 15, or 25 cents. A holiday ad in the Journal on Dec. 11 also listed “mufflers, silk umbrellas, and ‘gents’ furnishings.”

The next week, a tongue-in-cheek ad from Santa ran in the Journal, declaring “I wish to inform everybody that I have established my headquarters at W.C. Miller & Co.” There, Santa had “placed on exhibition all my nice Christmas presents for good little boys and girls, as well as the older folks.” The old man concluded by wishing “all of you to call there and make your selection.”

Food was an important part of the holiday schedule, and in 1890, Walling advertised in the Journal for “as complete a stock of fine Christmas candies as can be found in the city,” as well as “nuts of all kinds” and “bananas, figs, dates, oranges, etc.”  Turkey, chicken, duck, and goose were also mainstays of Christmas dinners of the time, as well as oysters.

Weather can affect a holiday, but in 1889, Montgomery County residents enjoyed an unseasonable Christmas day. The Journal’s correspondent from Coffeen asked, “when did we ever have so beautiful a Christmas in this latitude?” The Irving correspondent was more direct, reporting “a very warm Christmas.”

By comparison, the Journal reported the next year that there was “good sleighing” on Christmas Day, “and for several days afterwards.”

Many chose to visit friends and relatives on the holiday, and some rail lines offered special discounts. In Hillsboro, the fabled Big Four line usually cut fares for the season, including in 1891, when they touted “excursion tickets” at “one and one-third fare for the round trip” in a Journal ad in 1891. The tickets were good for Dec. 24, 25, and 31, as well as Jan.1 and returning on Jan. 4 to afford “everyone an excellent opportunity to enjoy” the holiday.

Apparently, the offers proved popular. In 1889, the Journal noted out-of-town visitors in Hillsboro from across the region, including Paris, Dixon, St. Louis, and several locales in Indiana.

Church was a big part of the day for many. In 1889, the Journal wrote that “the usual Christmas exercises were indulged in by the various Sunday schools of the city.” The paper added, with apparent boredom, that the celebrations featured “just enough changes from programs of years gone by to make the entertainments interesting.”

For the sporting types, the Journal reported in 1889 that “the members of the gun club had a grand turkey shoot on their grounds all day” on Christmas.

One of Hillsboro’s civic leaders, Judge Jesse Phillips, a Civil War officer who later served on the state supreme court, was proud of his gift at Christmas 1889. The Journal reported the judge “exhibited a handsome meerschaum pipe,” a gift from a friend. Wrote the Journal, the pipe “is a beauty,” and Phillips “appeared to appreciate [it] highly.”  Indeed, Christmases past in Hillsboro had plenty to offer.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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