Holiday Time in Old Brooklyn
Â© Erik Fortmeyer 2004
Q: What were the holidays like in old Brooklyn?
A: The holidays in Brooklyn in the 19th century were similar in some ways to what we often celebrate today. Christmas was the most popular holiday by far then as Brooklyn’s general population then was overwhelmingly of European Christian origin.
Q: What was different in particular in the early days?
A: Brooklyn was much more compact before the Civil War and had more of a small town feel. In the 1840s, the populated boundaries generally enclosed Jay Street to Atlantic Avenue in to the City Hall area. The earlier times saw the holidays focused in on making the period a general holiday for family gatherings. It was not unusual to consolidate holiday gatherings back until New Years Day in antebellum times if the weather was not cooperating. It was considered each young Brooklyn man’s duty to make calls on neighbors with 100 calls being the â€˜proper’ minimum. Penny dip tallow candles would light the streets into the evening. Most churches did not have special Christmas services as most Protestant denominations then held to the belief that no one knew the exact day of Christ’s birth. The only exceptions were the Protestant Episcopal and Roman Catholic faiths. There were no hard feelings about this, but they just “had their opinions”
A:. Much of the more notable preaching was done in the 1830s by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Hanson Cox at the First Presbyterian Church which later became today’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. One of the more memorable activities then was listening to the various church bells ringing and trying to pick out the distinct sounds of each bell. The bell of the old St. Ann’s Church then on Washington Street between Sands and Prospect Streets was well known for miles around for its “soft, sweet silvery tone”
A:. By the 1890s, most of the current Brooklyn was filled in with many of the trappings of the modern borough in place.
Q: What was it like for the children?
A: There was a great effort through the 1800s to make the holidays special for young children and the less fortunate. Santa Claus was a part of Christmas day in Brooklyn all through the period. The early days were more of a domestic affair because theatres for going out to Christmas matinees weren’t built until later. Matches had not been invented before the Civil War so, most children would start the winter days well before dawn with steel and flint with a bundle of shavings dipped in â€˜sulphur’ to help make a fire. They were often extra motivated on Christmas to see what Santa had brought them in their stockings hung on the fireplace! Children would then be sent to the family’s favorite local water pump with wooden pails for cooking and drinking water. By the 1880s, parents would tell some children that Santa had a new way of delivering toys to all the good boys and girls. He had help from the owners of the new elevated trains running through Brooklyn! Still later in the 1890s, rumor began spreading amongst the wee ones that speedy Santa could travel not only through telegraph lines, but newly installed electrical wires as well!
Q: Were there any special hangouts for the holidays?
A: Brooklyn in the old days had no more favorite holiday hangout than Snediker’s Hotel. This was a wayside inn located “in the country”
A: since 1822 opposite of Eldert’s Lane on Jamaica Avenue just east of the Ridgewood Reservoir in Cypress Hills right on the Brooklyn/Queens border. When it snowed, young Brooklynites would go on a sleigh ride east down Atlantic or Fulton to the then new railroad station and turn onto Jamaica Avenue for completion of the seven mile ride from Brooklyn Heights and later Boerum Hill. The inn was owned by John R. Snediker until his death in 1843 when his son took it over. It was affectionately called “John I’s”
A: then and was a mandatory stopping point for visiting Southerners ranging from Daniel Webster to Sam Houston. Other prominent families including the Astors, Wards, and Belmonts would make the hostelry their summer resort headquarters for many years, but it was Christmas that brought out the Brooklynites in force. The property had a spacious two story mansion with a piazza and ballroom that was the favorite of all Brooklyn belles and beaux of the antebellum years. If there was moonlight on their Christmas parties, they would dance all night long while “a light colored fiddler named Blake”
A: would provide the music and then pass his hat around between dances. Coins before the 1850s were usually silver schillings and six-pences from Spain and Mexico with large-cent American pennies known as â€˜cartwheels’. Blake’s hat was surely a sturdy one! Many of the help at Snediker’s still spoke Holland Dutch in those days.
Q: What were holiday decorations like in the 1800s?
A: Holiday greenery and trees would be gathered in New Jersey from Jersey City to Atlantic City and brought by boat for sale in Brooklyn shops mostly along Fulton Street downtown. The designs of these decorations by the 1880s were becoming more and more finished and ornamental usually arranged into wreaths, crosses, and hearts of pine adorned with flowers and silver moss. Wreaths ranged in price then between 50 cents and three dollars per dozen while hearts and crosses varied between $1.50 and $4. Christmas trees were becoming even more popular into the 1870s as many more Germans began emigrating to America. Trees ranged from 50 cents at their simplest for homes while up to $10 was often spent for large trees in churches and Sunday schools. An 1885 Brooklyn Eagle description of front parlor Christmas tree decorations noted them as “hung with pretty wax candles and bearing the queerest fruit the children ever saw â€“ bonbons and dolls and trumpets and drums and boxes of candy and cornucopias and oranges and whistles and balls and earrings and bracelets and breastpins and rings and handkerchiefs and all sorts of things which never, under any circumstances, can be made to grow except upon a Christmas tree, and which only grow on that at Christmas time.”
A: One of the first electrically lighted trees was done in 1885 with great fanfare at the Central Congregational Church.
Q: What kinds of toys were popular then?
A: Toys then, as now, were usually the highlight of Christmas Day for children. Most of Brooklyn’s Christmas shopping was done along Fulton Street in the present day Fulton Mall area. Most of the toy novelties came from Paris. One man in Paris in the early 1880s was a favorite of Brooklyn dealers as he would devote the whole year to inventing new Christmas toys for children. These were very expensive, but sold very well as the times were generally prosperous. Among the toys were a wind-up monkey dressed in a blue flannel sailors suit who would “with the utmost non-chalance”
A: smoke a cigarette and blow smoke in the air! Others included a troubadour doll in an oriental costume that played a mandolin and a wind-up walking giraffe that turned its head from side to side. Dolls then ranged in price from five cents up to $100 in 1881. More common gifts were candies, fruits, picture books, hobby horses, swings, blocks, trumpets, drums, and toy swords. Batteries were never needed then!
Q: How were the less fortunate tended to?
A: Most of the â€˜spirit of Christmas’ in Brooklyn after the Civil War was attended to by various benevolent organizations and the myriads of churches. Holiday pageants were often held where gifts were handed out to children and Brooklyn’s less fortunate ranging from the Faith Home For Incurables, the Graham Home For Indigent Females, the Home For Destitute Children, and the Home For the Friendless among many others. Patients at hospitals were often feted and festivities were even held at county penitentiaries. Of local note was the Brooklyn Eagle’s account of a Christmas in 1885: “The seventy children in the Sheltering Arms Nursery, 157 Dean Street, had a merry time yesterday. Immediately after breakfast they assembled in the playroom and shouted with glee at the sight of a large Christmas tree which was decked with toys, bon bons and fruit â€“ donations from the charitable. Turkey and cranberry sauce with other fixings constituted the principal meal, after which an entertainment was given.”
A: The local “drinking clubs”
A: were mostly deserted on Christmas as most of Brooklyn sat down with family to a typical dinner then of turkey, chicken, other poultry, stuffing, cranberry, gravy, potatoes, onions, turnips, ice cream, and the perennial favorite, mince pie.
Erik Fortmeyer is the official historian of the Boerum Hill Association.