Gifts From The Past

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

Depression-era Christmas presents were few and practical

In the years of the Great Depression before World War II, gift giving did not dominate Ann Arbor Christmases as it does today. "You were lucky if you got one present," recalls Bob Ryan of his childhood. "I'd get an orange in my stocking or sometimes an apple. One year I got a sled."

"Presents were primarily clothes," recalls Lois Uhlendorf McLean. "We'd get practical things: school clothes, a sweater, what we needed." Though parents bought necessities, sometimes other relatives would give toys like dolls or trucks. She also recalls that sometimes her dad would buy a new Christmas tree ornament and say it was a gift from the family to the tree.

Harlan Otto remembers looking forward to the hard candy that came in a special box every year from St. Paul's Church. He also recalls many handmade gifts, such as mittens and socks. "Grandma Zill, it seemed like she could do it in twenty minutes. She'd say, 'Oh, you don't have any mittens.' Zoom, zoom, zoom, she'd make them."

Some parents put a great deal of creativity and resourcefulness into making presents. Otto remembers receiving toys made out of old spools from thread, while Coleman Jewett recalls receiving scooters made out of old skates.

Maybe because presents were such a rarity, people now in their seventies and eighties seem to have remarkable memories of the ones they did get. Otto recalls two very clearly: a flashlight he got from a neighbor, and a steam shovel that his godfather gave him and that he "played with forever."

Rosemarion Blake recalls a life-changing present: "Mrs. Blackburn—she worked at Barbour Gym—thought it necessary for kids to read, so she always gave me a stack of books." As a result of this yearly gift, Blake became an avid reader.

Both Coleman Jewett and John Hathaway recall "little big books," which had pictures on the borders so that when you riffled the pages you saw the figures move. Inexpensive hardcover books, such as adventure stories for boys and Nancy
Drew for girls, were other popular presents. A favorite gift with Mary Stevens Hathaway and her siblings was a yearly subscription to Life magazine, given by an aunt and uncle.

Back then toys were powered by imagination, not batteries. Pat Murphy remembers getting a doll in the pre-Barbie days that came with material for miniature clothes that she had to make herself, using a sewing kit that was also included. Jewett remembers getting art supplies, such as watercolor sets or a compass to draw circles.

Erector sets and their cheaper cousin, Meccano sets, were a big hit with boys; they could add to their collections each year, as they did with painted tin soldiers. With the days of political correctness still in the future, boys also got more macho presents, such as high-top boots with a slit on the side for a jackknife. Jewett remembers getting cap guns to play cowboys and Indians with; when he was about eleven years old, he got a Red Ryder BB gun, made in Plymouth. Bob Kuhn remembers receiving boxing gloves complete with a punching bag. In contrast, all of the women interviewed remember getting dolls.

Al Gallup gets the prize for the most unusual present—a puppy. "One year I got a Manchester terrier we named Boots," he remembers. Boots went on to claim fame after his picture was featured on Scott lawn products distributed nationwide, according to Gallup. Why was Boots so special? "Because he dug dandelions," Galiup says. "He pulled the roots out but didn't eat them. We never knew why."

Photo Captions:

Grace Stevens TerMaat, Brad Stevens, and Mary Stevens Hathaway, Christmas 1937.

Coleman Jewett, junior commando, 1943.

Brad Stevens plays with his new train set, 1931.