Historically Speaking: Christmas of yesteryear in the Midwest


Holiday presents. (Photo by Clint Patterson via Unsplash)

Tom Morrow

Another Christmas has come and gone, which takes me back more than eight decades of my life. I recall the anticipated booty that never appeared on the dreamscape during my 1940s and early ’50s. Of course, in those days, what toy land wonders we didn’t know about weren’t missed.

Comparatively speaking, postwar vintage toys were, at best, primitive. After World War II, plastic was hard to get and metal of any kind was expensive. After the war, toys were, shall we say, “fragile.”

The biggest problem when fighting off Indians and robbers trying to win the American West was with six-shooters. Many toys, especially pistols, were made of compressed sawdust. When told to do so by an opponent, we had to lay our pistols down on the ground ever so gently lest they break apart. More than one occasion, Mom came to the rescue but got the barrel glued back a bit crooked … sometimes she glued the barrel upside down. Roy, Gene and Hoppy would’ve been shocked.

Historically Speaking by Tom MorrowThe only gift Santa might bring that would be close to that of today’s Christmas morning booty was Tinker Toys … the Legos of yesteryear.

Gift ideas to Santa were limited because there was no television or internet. Surveying hints for the big guy, as well as Mom and Dad, were found primarily in store windows or in the annual Sears, Wards, or Spiegel catalogs. Somehow, our requests were hinted to Mom and Dad. Of course, a little help from the U.S. Postal Service was our backup for direct requests.

Being “good” was always part of the bargain. Those items of joy neatly on display in store windows had price tags. The price of $3.95 seemed to be the most popular number. As it happened, the price was just a tad out of our Dad’s budget range.  

Having lots of presents under the tree measured the amount of joy you expressed. If you were lucky enough to get a “biggie,” then it occupied a place of honor unwrapped and displayed among a pile of gift-wrapped goodies. In lean years, Mom would increase the gift count by separately wrapping socks, making the big day seem more abundant than it really was.  

For every boy I knew, electric trains were high on the lists for most-coveted items. While Lionel train sets were the most popular, no self-respecting “Junior” railroad man would be satisfied with anything but an American Flyer. Lionel train sets were powered via a “center” electric track … three in total. American Flyers mimicked the real thing with just two rails.

Flyers were authentic-looking in every respect. Mom didn’t understand such things. Dad did, but he had trouble with a more expensive price tag. A Lionel set was around $14.95. An American Flyer commanded $19.95 and beyond. In those days, Dad never made more than $2,500 a year, so such extravagances at our house were out of the question. 

Ironically, today, if you could find either a Lionel or an American Flyer, they’d probably command a collector’s price tag in the hundreds of dollars. However, the Holy Grail on nearly every boy’s wish list was a Red Ryder air rifle. But Mom always said what nearly every mom did: “No! You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Remembering to gift for Mom and Dad could be a bit of a challenge. Weekly allowances didn’t go very far. I got .50 cents a week, and my sister got a quarter. (So much for equal opportunity.) If you had any money, it wouldn’t be enough to buy more than one item. For Mom, there was always Evening in Paris perfume — for .50 cents, it certainly wasn’t Chanel No. 5, more like Kids’ No. 001. Years ago, when my sister was helping our Mom close up her house, a number of Paris bottles had been stashed away in keep-sake manner. Ironically, the traditional kids’ parental gift of choice is still being produced, but not for .50 cents.

As for Dad, we somehow managed to buy him a necktie … that was for a man who had just one tie, which he only wore for weddings and funerals. Mom usually helped by giving us a dollar or three to buy him something.  

One year, our parents had made some huge expenditure for the household causing Mom to tell Dad not to worry about getting her a gift for Christmas (you can see this one coming). Dad took Mom at her word, causing a very tense Christmas morning. Of course, as she always did, Mom remembered Dad with at least two or three gifts. From that year forward, my sister and I made sure Dad had something for Mom under every tree. Throughout my years at home, I don’t think Dad ever shopped for anything at Christmas or for birthdays. 

For those who annually watch the movie “A Christmas Story,” based on the anecdotes of storyteller Jean Shepherd, you can get a picture of what Christmas was like in my hometown of Seymour, Iowa, during the 1940s and ’50s. (On a personal note, in that movie, the 1937 Pontiac parked in the family’s driveway is exactly like my Dad’s car.)

Memories? You bet!  

Have a Happy New Year!

Tom Morrow is a longtime Oceanside-based journalist and author.

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.