Historian Andrew Simpson gets into the spirit of South Manchester’s Christmas past.
Had I been a shop keeper in the run up to the Christmas of 1912, I might have bought a few sets of Tuck and Sons’ A Winter Campaign (pictured above). The series of Christmas cards showed a group of snowmen in different poses riding wooden horses. Wally Fialkowska, the artist, was Austrian and the cards were produced in Bavaria, so the snowmen are wearing German military caps.
Mr Bernard Butler sent one to Madam J. Wetter at 67 Grafton Street, Fitzroy Square on 24 December, wishing ‘you all a happy Xmas and a prosperous New Year.’ ‘MRR’ wrote on the back of another (to a Miss Halliday of Bridge Street, Banbridge, County Down) that the canary ‘was making such a row we had to banish him from the dining room.’
Two years later, any of the remaining cards would have been thrown on the fire, of course: unless our shop keeper was optimistic that the war would be over by Christmas.
So how would we have run our own winter campaigns, getting ready for Christmas in South Manchester, just over a century ago?
Shops like T.C. Whittaker on Chorlton Green or Seymour Meads at Didsbury Station would have been very busy. Just like today, their windows would have been dominated by wonderful displays. Whittaker’s advertised “CHOICE NEW CURRANTS AND SULTANAS [for] XMAS” and boxes of mincemeat, along with the more usual brands still familar today: Oxo, Crawfords, and Bovril. I doubt that today’s shoppers would be comfortable with those great sides of meat hanging in the open, though. Some of the products on sale would have reflected changes in global trade and in particular the impact of empire which put new foods on our tables. All of which makes me wonder what the older people of the time would have made of the changes. When they were born, in the mid-nineteenth century, we were still rural communities. There were some grand families and a fair share of the ‘middling people’, but most who lived here earned a living from the land or businesses associated with it.
For them, the practices and traditions in the run up to December would have remained unchanged for centuries. Ploughing had to be completed for Christmas, so that the January frosts could help break down the soil.
Some families kept a pig in their back garden or yard. It could be fed on almost anything and then provide the family with food for almost the entire year. As well as fresh pork, there was salted bacon, cured ham, lard, sausages and black pudding. Then there was pigskin for saddles, gloves, bags and footballs, and bristles for brushes. And an average pig gave a ton of manure a year! The traditional time for slaughter was around Martinmas (early November), which had the added advantage that cured hams would be ready for Christmas. My old friend Oliver Bailey reminded me of a Spanish saying, about things catching up with you: ‘A cada chancho viene su San Martin’ – every pig has his St Martin’s day.
And in terms of spreading good wishes and festive cheer, our postcard companies were not averse to cashing in on the season. Many of them reissued familiar picture postcards, overprinted with the caption Merry Christmas. This may have been a more seasonally appropriate message had they not in some cases used photographs taken in high summer, full of leaves and flowers!
Picture; From the series, “A WINTER CAMPAIGN” 1912, marketed by Tuck and Sons, courtesy of Tuck DB, tuckdb.org