A brief history of holiday shopping in America

The holiday season is a retailer’s gold mine.

From as early as October, Americans hit the stores or visit online shops to buy gifts to exchange with loved ones for Hanukkah, Ramadan, Christmas – whichever occasion they’re celebrating.

The holiday season, commonly defined as November to December, is the time of year when Americans spend the most, mainly on gifts for their nearest and dearest, and retailers gain the most. Last year, spending over the holiday season reached an impressive USD $626.1 billion, up 3% from 2014, and, according to the NRF, holiday sales can now contribute to a retailer’s yearly revenue by as much as 30%.

We went all the way back to the advent of winter gift-giving to find out how holiday shopping has evolved over time into the commercial phenomenon that it is today.

 

Late Antiquity: the advent of holiday gift-giving

We need to travel way back in time to before the Middle Ages to find the origins of celebrating winter festivals and gift-giving. The period of Late Antiquity (between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD) – centuries before America was first visited by the Europeans – marks the first known winter festivals, and occasions to exchange gifts with family and friends.

At that point, pagans in Europe and the Middle East celebrated various winter festivals such as Saturnalia, a harvest festival that celebrated the return of the sun, and Yule. History tells us that pagans loved to celebrate these merry occasions with a drink – or several – and by exchanging gifts.

“Saturnalia was a time of celebration, visits to friends, and gift-giving, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).”

– Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet, 1st century BC

Over 10 centuries ago, the gifts offered were fairly minimalistic. Pagans handcrafted their own gifts, such as wax candles and figurines, to offer family and close friends.

The 17th century: holiday gifts for everyone

17th century christmas village

Fast forward in time to 17th century America. At this point, holiday celebrations boomed in popularity, as did the act of offering gifts. New England’s Puritan leaders outlawed Christmas celebrations on the grounds that they were too luxurious of a practice and there was no justified reason for celebrating them. When these celebrations were finally legalized in the 1680s, Americans went all out, offering gifts to family, friends and neighbors.

Popular gifts during this period were handcrafted wooden toys and games. Adults would exchange elaborate needlework pieces. Every Tom, Dick and Harry would receive something, from the poorest peasants to the King.

 

The 19th century: the reconstruction of the holidays

The 19th century was a time of major social change. Several significant historical events radically shifted Americans’ behavior and gave rise to the consumer and the commercialization of the winter holiday festivities.

Construction of the holiday spirit in literature
Many historians recognize the influence that certain iconic works of literature had on shaping the holidays as we know them today. Charles Dickens and his contemporary John Irving constructed a vision of the holidays as a time to show compassion to others and be generous by offering gifts. These nostalgic portrayals had a significant influence on the way Americans celebrated the winter festivities and gave rise to many of the values we associate with the holidays today.

Vintage Christmas night at home, santa Claus entrance with toys

The American Civil War (1861 to 1865)
Considered the most devastating event in American history, the American Civil War had a significant impact on American society, intensifying the divide between the North and South. In the context of a divided society, more and more Americans began celebrating the holidays during and after the war, embracing the generosity of the holiday spirit by giving, sharing and showing kindness to others. Just five years after the war was over, December 25 became a national holiday. The holidays were now a nationwide celebration.

The Industrial Revolution in the United States (1820-1870)
The Industrial Revolution transformed the way goods were produced. With new materials and machines, manufacturers began making goods quicker, cheaper and in higher volumes than ever before. Manufactured gifts were now affordable to the middle classes, no longer just the elite.

In 1858, the first department store in America, Macy’s, was founded. Quickly, Americans began buying manufactured gifts largely from stores, rather than handmade gifts from local craftspeople.

ladies_mile_new_york_1898

In the late 19th century, storekeepers began marketing goods for the holidays: selling items such as decorative festive goods imported from Germany and offering gift wrap services.

This was the true beginning of the commercialization of the holidays and the commonly accepted idea that gifts signified love.

“Love is the moral of Christmas…What are gifts but the proof and signs of love?”

– Harper’s Magazine, 1856

What Victorian’s bought hugely depended on their class. Lower class society would commonly exchange a stocking containing fruit and nuts. Christmas cards were also a common gift among the poorer class. They were inexpensive gifts which held sentimental value.

Before the Industrial Revolution, rich families would often have their gifts handmade by craftspeople. Common gifts were handmade children’s toys, sculpted from raw materials like wood. After the Industrial Revolution, middle and upper classes would purchase mass-produced gifts made from inexpensive materials such as factory-made toys (teddy bears, trains, dolls) and ornaments.

Vintage racing car

The 20th century: holiday spending booms

1900 – 1949

By the early 20th century, the holiday shopping season was firmly entrenched in Western society. Consumers would hit department stores en masse, and consumer spending became one of the main economic drivers in the US over the holiday season.

In 1903, the Consumer League of New York launched a nationwide marketing campaign to cut down the long hours retail staff worked over the holiday season. Magazines and newspapers called on consumers to start their seasonal shopping early. As a result, consumer shopping behavior shifted and the “Shop Early” mantra that would continue on for decades – and is still present today – was born.

Manufacturers and shopkeepers did what they could to attract the bustling holiday crowd to their stores, offering a wide range of holiday-themed goods. As for popular gifts at this time, children’s toys – notably stuffed toys, dolls, train sets – were especially popular, as were festive ornaments imported from Germany.

1950 – 1999

An increasing number and variety of stores began appearing during the mid 20th century. The first big box store – Meijer Superstore – was founded in Michigan in 1962. It sold a huge range of products, from toys to houseware. Consumers had more choice than ever before about where to buy their holiday presents and what to buy.

New technology also enters the scene at this point, revolutionizing the way holiday gifts are marketed. In particular, the television hugely influenced Americans’ gift choices.

HolidayCommercialGif
Snippet from 1990s Kodak television commercial
New materials, such as plastics, also grew readily available. Manufacturers could lower production cost even further and churn out cheap goods in huge volumes. Holiday gifts were now affordable to the vast majority of Americans.

Popular holiday gifts during the 20th century
In the early 20th century, popular gifts included factory-produced goods, such as stuffed animals and mechanical toys (think teddy bears and train sets). After the ‘50s, Americans increasingly bought gifts manufactured from plastics. Now iconic toys like lego, Barbie and Mr Potato Head were popular. As we neared the end of the 20th century, electronic consumer goods became available, such as the Nintendo Game Boy and the Tamagotchi – flew off the shelves.

 

21st century: new technology redefines holiday shopping

At the turn of the 21st century, who could’ve predicted the impact the internet would have on our holiday shopping in the coming years?

The 21st century has seen the internet’s role transform holiday shopping behavior. Amazon and eBay came on to the scene in 1995 and by the mid-2000s, over 1 billion consumers were shopping online.

Between 2005 and today, the internet has become faster and more accessible. 84% of American adults now use the internet. Consumers are no longer limited by slow internet connections. 8 in 10 Americans now research and buy holiday gifts online, using a connected device (mobile, tablet, laptop, etc.).

The mobile commerce phenomenon

online shopping

In recent years, mobile shopping via smartphone has entered the holiday shopping mix. A record number of shoppers now use their mobiles to research and buy gifts. Consumers seek out gift-buying advice on their smartphones – they read online reviews, gift guides on YouTube and search for “the best” products in search engines, without being restricted to a certain location.

The rise of omnichannel
Today, customers shop online (including mobile apps, social media, online stores) and in-store interchangeably. In a recent survey on holiday retail sales, Deloitte estimates that 66% of customers now research items online before buying them in store. As well as researching gifts online, consumers size them up in-store, buy online for home delivery or buy online to pick up in-store. Deloitte also says that this year, for the first time in holiday shopping history, shoppers plan to spend as much online as in-store. Modern holiday shopping is truly an omnichannel affair.

Woman Paying With NFC Technology on Smart Phone in Store

 

The future: what does it hold for holiday shopping?

Looking at holiday shopping trends over recent years, it’s pretty clear to see that holiday shopping will continue to be both a tactile and a digital experience well into the future. American consumers are increasingly using online channels, yet they’re still attached to the tangible nature of in-store shopping. They want to shop where they want and get the same level of service and a uniform brand experience regardless of their shopping location.

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Ellie Lord

Ellie Lord

Ellie is a British-born francophile and tech enthusiast based in Montreal. She loves all word-related activities such as speaking various languages, singing and crafting content.