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From the archives: Holiday shopping in 1930 looked a lot like today

December 1, 2014, 1:00 AM UTC

Holiday shopping has been an all-American tradition since about the end of the 19th century. The exact start is difficult to pin down, but generally followed the rise of store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades. The moment Santa Claus came gliding down the street was the official beginning of the holiday shopping season.

The most famous parade still graces televisions nationwide: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It started in 1924, not long before the nation’s deepest and longest-lasting depression.

The market crashed on Oct. 28, 1929–what would come to be called Black Monday. The shopping season was only weeks away and no one was yet aware that the U.S. was sliding into the Great Depression, as Fortune chronicled.

Even in the mad winter of 1929, above the dying bellows of the Bull Market, could be heard sleigh bells and the quaintly anachronistic “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” Santa Claus managed by his very madness to divert attention from the carnage in Wall Street for a little while, and by that much enabled the U. S. citizen to throw up philosophical bulwarks against the the bad times that were advancing on him.

Retail wouldn’t feel the full effects of the market crash until the following year, 1930.

But any department store manager who thought that he had already weathered the storm soon found the seriousness of his miscalculation. Unemployment first, and then curtailment of pay rolls during the months that followed, slowly but surely reacted upon his trade. The graph of his sales, unless his store was in a singularly fortunate bailiwick, gradually dropped downward. Not even normal seasonal upward movements were followed. In August, sales were off 9 per cent from 1929’s August record, and the average for the year’s first seven months (despite, on the whole, remarkable steadiness during the late winter period) was off 6 per cent. Thus did the department store, always a laggard in reflecting business conditions, at length show what had already been shown in other divisions of business and trade.

The solution? More spending, according to businessmen and economists.

The needed thing, all agreed, was an acceleration of spending. An increase of $267,000,000 in savings deposits throughout the U. S. between June 30, 1929-June 30, 1930 indicated that even with lessened income people were setting aside greater liquid reserves—a hesitancy to spend which accelerated the forces making for reduced business activity. If these reserves could be released, if goods could be started moving at a more rapid rate, if shelves could be depleted, then the wheels of production could be started revolving, idle men and idle capital put to work, and the tide turned. Philadelphia began a determined “Buy Now” campaign and exhorted the rest of Pennsylvania to follow suit so that that state could come out of the slump first.

The storyline sounds familiar to the more recent Great Recession, though the consumption numbers 84 years ago paled compared to today. Shoppers were expected to snap up $6 billion worth of goods–$17.3 billion in today’s dollars. That’s a fraction of the nearly $617 billion American buyers will spend this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Nevertheless, some things don’t change all that much, especially an American tradition like the Macy’s parade.

Each year in Manhattan, R. H. Macy & Co. does him honor with a parade of Gargantuan balloons, designed by Tony Sarg and constructed by Goodyear. The parade comes down Broadway on Thanksgiving Day, and in 1929 consisted of ten balloons representing the Katzenjammer family of comic supplement fame, plus a dragon 177 feet long, a dog, a turkey, and a horse and rider. All of the balloons with the exception of the dog were inflated with helium (of which gas R. H. Macy & Co., by virtue of this annual parade, is the largest commercial user in the U. S. except for companies actually operating airships) and were released after their march at the entrance of Macy’s store. To each was attached an offer of $100 reward for return.

Read the full article from the archives here.