A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Boston’s Bittersweet Christmas of 1942

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!

The holidays are once again upon us and I found myself considering just what year I should focus my attentions on for my annual Christmas update here on the retro Boston blog.

After a great deal of thinking and a few suggestions from loyal readers, I selected 1942. Not a very easy choice in many ways...yes, it was 70 years ago...but it was a very difficult and bittersweet holiday season for Boston.

Most of my readers will recall and understand fully why 1942 was such an emotional Christmas season for the Boston area...but for younger readers, I shall explain a bit about the situation dear old Boston found itself in from late November and on to the 25th of December.

The United States was now nearing the end of its first year directly involved in World War ll. Families all over Boston had loved ones far from home serving in the war in various capacities and many a holiday table would be minus one or more members thus making for great sadness and agonizing separation. This sadness became true grief for all too many families as those dreaded official telegrams arrived bringing news of death or missing in action.

Boston, like all of the rest of the USA, had rationing of many goods and supplies. Gasoline and home heating oil were severely cut down to the general public and this made for much less car travel and deliveries of all goods to stores were done much less often. The public was urged to walk, ride bicycles, use public transport and carry all goods home with you...don’t waste precious fuel became the rule to live by . All resources were being put into winning the war and each Bostonian needed to do their part in this huge task. Coupon books with sheets of stamps for various household staples and other essentials were issued to residents and were well in use by the Xmas season of 1942 and Boston was learning how to live by strict rations.

Scrimp and save...make do and mend...share and do more with less, much less. Boston was learning to be even thriftier than even those long Great Depression years had required.

This holiday season in Boston was a much darker one than normal for several key reasons. 1942 saw the introduction of dimout regulations and blackout air raid tests in the Boston area. Dimout meant that window shades must be pulled down (¾ of the way) in all homes and other buildings with little or no light showing by 5:45 pm each day. Early in the Xmas season it was announced that the outdoor lighting of trees and all other exterior holiday lighting were forbidden...imagine...and that included all window candles as well. The Boston stores had to go without the usual fancy buntings of colorful lit garlands and go with non-electrical means of festive decorations. The stores also had to shut off all display window lighting and shield any flood lighting so that at 5:45 each night...Boston should barley be visible from the surrounding ocean...it should be almost black. Street lamps, head lights on cars...you name it...special rules applied and had to be followed or fines were imposed by the local police or civil defence wardens.

Boston also had “blackouts” and that meant...black. When these air raids were done, Boston had to be as black as night. All lights went out and stayed out until an “all clear” sounded. Residents learned to listen for the tell-tale sound of the sirens...it would become part of life in the war years...and remains a very lasting memory for many. The streets had to be empty during any air raid style test and Bostonian’s learned to seek shelter in many public buildings if caught out and about and not safe at home when the siren sounded.

Massachusetts had its first state-wide blackout air raid test during the Christmas season of 1942 and it did quite well...if enemy forces had been lurking on the ocean off the coastline of Massachusetts, they might have had trouble seeing land during that short test.

Boston also was in a very solemn mood during the holidays of 1942 for another tragic reason.

The war was bad enough...but the tragedy that unfolded on the night of the 28th of November brought Boston to her knees.

The fire at the highly popular and very trendy Cocoanut Grove Nightclub in Boston struck down nearly 500 men and women, most under 35 years of age...words really fail me now. What does one say in the face of this scope of death and heartbreak?

Just a few days after a very quiet Thanksgiving, Boston found itself in shock and grief...what would have been the start to a war “enforced” greatly subdued holiday shopping period became a series of stories about those victims lost at the Cocoanut Grove that tore at Boston’s heart and soul.

The backlash right after the fire saw many local nightclubs being closed all around the city until each could be pronounced safe for the public. School decorations and trees were banned that year...as a precaution against accidental fires.

So Boston went into the holiday shopping season with a very heavy heart and in need of cheering.

The wonderful stores of retro Boston did what they did best...they responded to their customers with warmth, feeling and deep understanding.

Jolly Santa took a backseat to a more homespun, home centred Christmas. Gifts needed to be simple, inexpensive and from the heart. The stores pushed the sales of war bonds and stamps and offered an array of gifts for those in the armed services. They urged Boston to shop early and carry it all home. They even added more night shopping hours so that all those extra folks (mostly women) joining the workforce & war effort could shop after their shifts in all the Boston stores. Monday became a new shopping night as well as the traditional Wednesday...some stores did both...and a few were open each night until Christmas Eve.

So in the gloom of dimout regulations, 1942 Boston carried on and the great old stores met their wartime consumer needs with a warm smile and a cheery greeting.

Putting this salute and much deserved tribute together for Christmas in Boston 1942 was a great experience for me. I cried, I smiled and all those things my mother and dad said to me about the war years made a hell of a lot more sense and darn, I wish they could see this update today!

It’s so easy to think life is hard today...but when you think back to the events of that year in Boston during Christmas of 1942, you see a great deal of the true meaning of Christmas. It was all about coping, sharing and doing your part for the bigger picture. It meant opening your home, your heart and exposing yourself to shared joy and shared grief with those around you...even strangers.

So Boston, 70 years on...are you better or worse? Can these ads, images, articles and photos teach you anything today? I do hope so.

Thanks to all my readers. You make all my research and posting here on the blog so worthwhile!

Please enjoy this look back. Read the words, look at the photos, and note all the classic names of the wonderful stores and places now only alive in our memories.

I worked hard to select a patchwork quilt of memories from Christmas 1942 and I do pray that they bring to you a better understanding of “who we were” and “what we stood for” in those difficult war years.

A few notes:

The photo of the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub shows the new Broadway Lounge on November 24th...just days before the fire. I chose that as the only photo of the event. Many others are available that show the ruins after the tragedy...I wanted you to see what “was”...what made folks in 1942 say, “I’d love to go the Grove tonight”.

This horrific fire taught many, many lessons and fire safety and severe burn treatment have all grown because of that fateful night back in 1942.

Some store notes:

Many beloved store Xmas slogans were in use by 1942:

White’s: Make it a White Christmas

Kennedy’s: It’s A Gift

Gilchrist’s: Gilchrist Bell Ringers

Jordan Marsh: Joyous Merry Christmas

Special wartime slogans were put into use by some of the stores as well:

Filene’s: Make it a Red, White and Blue Christmas

Hovey’s: Christmas cheer means more this year

Jordan Marsh: Make it an American Christmas

Conrad’s: The Store of Useful Gifts

RH Stearns:  We’ll Keep Our Christmas Merry Still

And notice that the all the Boston stores remained closed the day after Xmas and delayed their BIG “After Christmas” sales until a few days later to save precious heating fuel!

The photo of Temple Place looking down towards Avon Street shows a great shot of the still rather new bridge that connected the Main Store of Jordan Marsh to the Annex on floors three to five. The bridge completed at the end of the 1930’s was a huge step forward for the store in creating a more unified feeling for the shoppers. The underground tunnel beneath Avon Street was all that had connected the store until that point. You will notice Jordan’s was so proud of the bridge it even featured as part of the holiday logo on some adverts.

Also note Gilchrist’s was very pleased to be celebrating its 100th Christmas in Boston!!

Please keep writing and sending me your Boston memories!!! The Jordan Marsh Memory Project of mine is well underway and my archives are bursting with all sorts of wonderful memorabilia in need of sorting and recording. Keep it coming!! I am always in need of more Jordan Marsh information and memories. Thanks to all of you who have contributed so far!

A Joyous Holiday Season To Each of You!!!






Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Another excellent post, poignant and very interesting. Times well worth remembering, and you help us do that so well.

Charles Boston said...

Thanks, Jacqueline!!!! Always great to hear from my readers!!!
Keep visiting:-)


Mark B. said...

Great job, Charles. I've just begun reading it. I'll share a story of the time that my mother told me. Jamaica Plain still had German families living there, and one of my mother's schoolmates had German parents. Apparently, the father was a Nazi sympathizer, or simply a strong nationalist, because he refused to follow the blackout rules. The blackout warden was constantly at their house, demanding that shades be pulled down. We forget now that support for the war was not universal, and that some people actively spoke out against it.

Charles Boston said...

Thanks, Mark!! Very true...so many stories and issues during those years.
As the war went on...more and more "Pray for Peace" type of slogans began to be used by many stores and various other organizations. Slattery's kept it for years after the war ended.

Thanks, again!!! Charles:-)

Denholms said...

Wow, what a post!!! This is so lengthy and I cannot believe all of the ad's. I love it. You always inspire me, and take my mind to a bygone era.

Happy Holidays Charles!

Charles Boston said...

Thanks, Chris!!!!

Happy Holidays to YOU!!!


Editor said...

Hello, a wonderful restrospective and I will be sending the link to my friends. I also did something, though not on so grand a scale, about Christmas during the war years in Croton on Hudson, NY. The first installment is here http://everythingcroton.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-croton-christmas-world-war-ii.html


Hilary Kimbel said...

Thanks so much for posting this great information! Do you happen to know anything about the bell - westmount shopping centre? I have been trying to get more information on it!!!

Hushpuppy212 said...

I have been reading your blog for a few years now and, IMHO, this was by far your best post. I did a term paper on the Cocoanut Grove fire in junior high, back in 1970, and it has fascinated and affected me ever since. I was wondering if anyone would remember it 70 years later. Could anyone at the Grove that night still be alive?

Thanks for all your wonderful memories. Your invaluable information is priceless.

Charles Boston said...

Thanks so much!!!!!

Unknown said...

My mother and her girl friend were supposed to be at the Coconut Grove that night but decided to not go.If they had I wouldn't be here....