"For Muriel Armstrong From Santa" These words are written on a child’s easel blackboard sitting next to a tree decorated with tinsel, beads, glass ornaments and even an American flag. Other presents, including dolls, a sewing set, Bradley’s Toy Village, and “Denslow’s One Ring Circus and Other Stories” surround the tree. This black and white photograph captures the Christmas morning scene for a comfortable Connecticut family about 100 years ago. We do not know many details about Muriel Armstrong, but it seems likely that she is one of two girls who posed triumphantly next to the blackboard and tree in a second photograph. What did Santa bring to Connecticut children 100 years ago? What did the Christmas morning scene look like to eager children of that era?
A selection of photographs in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society, taken almost 100 years ago, provides a visual record of some of the gifts that actually appeared under trees of the time. William Dudley, a commercial photographer working in the Hartford area in the early years of the 20th century, captured some Christmas displays of prized new books, toys, and yes – clothing. It is possible some of these intimate views may be of his own family’s Christmas. These photographs also illustrate the transition from tabletop to full-length trees and changes in the way trees were decorated. Some of the gifts themselves were hung on the tree including paper cornucopias filled with candy or nuts that were left by Santa on Christmas morning.
Books were apparently a favorite gift during this period. They are displayed in several of the photographs. Raggedy Anne Stories, Peter Rabbit Goes to School, and The Jack and Jill Painting Book are arranged beneath a tree decorated with popcorn chains and other homemade ornaments, including a jack-o-lantern. Around a table-top tree we can see an array of gifts including a variety of dolls, alphabet blocks, Barnyard Friends, an Old Mother Goose banner, and a set of play dishes. In another scene, a very small tabletop tree is displayed with clothing as well as toys. A lucky child in this family received a popular “Kewpie doll” – named after a comic strip character introduced in 1909. Modern electric lights appear on the tree in the final photograph which is surrounded by a lavish display of stuffed animals, dolls, a tea set, a “Farmyard Puzzle Box,” and a “Dissected Map of the United States.”