Published Dec. 22, 2011
Taking a trip down Christmas memory lane
History Museum maintains vibrant connections with the
village's holiday heritage
By Ken Knutson
Ever wonder how Hinsdaleans
got their Christmas on generations ago?
The Hinsdale Historical
Society’s Hinsdale History Museum is a veritable
treasure trove of the village’s heritage, with an
impressive archive offering glimpses into the past,
including holiday seasons gone by.
Anne Swenson, museum director,
said she was surprised at how many of the newspaper
entries from 70 or more years ago would not seem out of
“I thought that there would be
a lot more that had changed,” she said. “There’s still a
sense of community that you have now and you still have
the Christmas Walk and the downtown things that the
village puts on.”
There is a notable difference,
however, in the length of the run-up to Christmas
between then and now.
“People started their
celebrations in December instead of November and
October, like we do today,” Swenson said.
Step back in time through
these accounts culled from the museum’s collection:
• In 1898, three Kimbell
families gathered in town for a 2 p.m. dinner before
going into Chicago for a party with more than 100
“The evening was spent with
vocal and instrumental music, recitations by a number of
the little ones and dancing until 10 p.m.”
• The same year, several
English families met at the Hemshell home in town “to
enjoy Christmas in true English style.” Following a
morning pigeon shoot in windy conditions, it was time
for Christmas dinner.
“After a substantial dinner,
the Yule logs were piled high in the old-fashioned
fireplaces, and dancing and other amusements were kept
up until after midnight.”
• The Hinsdale Bargain Store
at 210 First St. housed a “Christmas Store” in the
“The Christmas Store is filled
to overflowing with gifts for every member of the
family, a treasure house of distinctive merchandise —
the kind of goods you will be glad to give and to
receive,” read a 1923 advertisement.
• Hinsdale’s downtown debuted
its first Christmas decorations on Dec. 18, 1926. Six
men took most of a week to string 3,500 feet of wire and
attach 700 sockets for the red, white and green bulbs
along Hinsdale Avenue and Washington and First streets,
courtesy of business owners.
“First each socket had to be
soldered, taped into place and properly insulated,”
according to the paper. “Of course (the merchants) hope
to be paid back in added profits by drawing more holiday
• By 1929, efforts to
Jerry-rig storefront displays apparently had gotten a
“Merchants planning to use
electric lights or appliances for decorative purposes in
Christmas window displays are asked to get in touch with
the city electrical department before doing so,” the
“ ‘Installation of systems by
unskilled or unreliable workmen and without supervision
by an electrical inspector is a very unsafe practice,’ ”
the city inspector was quoted as saying.
• In 1934, the village
sponsored a Christmas display contest for residents and
business owners to promote beautification, offering $25
to the winners. Judging was to take place between Dec.
24 and 31, and quality would be ranked above quantity.
“Prizes will not necessarily
go to the person with largest display. They will be
judged on their artistic effect, not size,” said F.W.
Martin, Hinsdale’s superintendent of utilities.
• Also in 1934, an editorial
encouraged residents to seek fellowship on Christmas.
“Invite your friends to come
over at any time during the day and spend part of the
day, yourself, calling on your friends. Then you will
find that Christmas means a great deal more to you if
you spread a little of the Christmas cheer yourself,” it
• The following year’s
editorial took aim at the materialism creeping into the
“If the giving of gifts is all
Christmas means to you, at least you are better off than
he who only worries about what he is going to receive.
But the giving and receiving of gifts is just secondary.
Be more like the child who gets more kick out of a
10-cent toy than he does out of a $10 suit of clothes,”
it read. “Bring back the Christmas of old, with Santa
Claus, a smiling, generous, gay and big person and not
the grinning-type, gloomy and small person that he’s
getting to be.”
• In 1935, first prize in the
display contest was reduced to $20. In 1936, it was
discontinued due to lack of participation.
“However, many citizens and
businessmen are planning to decorate. The Christmas for
1936 will not be lacking in any of the usual
impressiveness,” the writer opined.
• From 1935-38, an annual
Christmas songfest too place around the community tree
near Memorial Hall on Christmas Eve night. Festivities
opened with a Christmas pageant at 6:30 “o’clock”,
followed by carol singing with organ accompaniment. It
also had a charitable dimension.
“Boys and girls are asked to
bring cookies to the pageant to be given out Christmas
day to families who otherwise would not have such
delicacies,” read a promotion for the event.
• Christmas stories by middle
and high schoolers were regularly published during the
season along with letters to Santa from elementary
students. First grade Madison School student Rosemary
Newman shared her family wish list in 1935.
“Dear Santa, please give me a
Shirley Temple doll. Please bring my little brother a
stoplight, high-tops and a knife. Please bring my big
brother a piano and his wife, a set of dishes. Bring my
mother a coffee pot, please. That’s all.”
Anne Swenson said children, in
particular, really get a kick out of visiting the museum
this time of year to see and hear what a Victorian-era
holiday was like.
“It’s really fun when we get
the kids in here around Christmas so they can see the
short tree on the table instead of the big tree, and
they get to learn a little bit more about how things
were different,” she said. “ ‘Yes, you only had four
presents. You didn’t have 20.’ ”
Making a Difference is a yearlong partnership
The Hinsdalean and the Hinsdale Historical Society,
which works to collect, preserve and promote the
village’s history and its architecture.