Local Lore: Illuminating holiday traditions
Photo owned by Buffalo History Museum, used with permission
The holidays are, for many, a frenzied time of preparation, shopping, cooking, and gatherings, at least in the past 150 years. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century though, the holidays were a quiet, somber time of reflection and religious ceremony. While we tend to take lighting and electricity for granted in our daily lives, it’s worth noting that evolving technology has profoundly influenced the way we celebrate the winter holidays.
Before gas lighting became commonplace, oil lamps were the standard, in homes and on city streets, and, over time, they improved in efficiency and brightness. After dark, theaters and other indoor spaces were still dependent on candlelight, which had obvious drawbacks. In the decades following the Civil War, northern American cities flourished, with an economic boom leading to construction of many new buildings. Buffalo was no exception, and its small, specialized shops and large, elegant stores became showplaces for new gas light technology. Due to the Industrial Revolution and mass production, the holiday season became an opportunity to market everything from machine-made hosiery and gloves to children’s toys.
At the same time, according to John Jakle in City Lights, “the shop window became a kind of glassedin stage, especially after plate glass became available around 1850. Customers on the sidewalk could see not only merchandise ‘in the window’ but also the entire shop interior, no longer obscured by the mullions of traditional window panes. The showcase in a store window was an invitation to enter.”
Retailers like Barnes, Bancroft & Co. (which became William A. Hengerer’s in 1895), and Adam, Meldrum & Anderson (founded 1892) flourished, leveraging tempting newspaper advertisements with crowded display windows that changed with the seasons. The densely packed downtown Buffalo of those days required pedestrians to walk by such stores on their way to run errands or eat lunch at the new Statler Restaurant in the fashionable Ellicott Square building. The National Association of Window Trimmers was established in 1898 to meet the growing demand for professional merchandisers. Holiday ads touted Christmas bargains of all kinds, and shoppers enjoyed seeing a wide selection of wares as they strolled and “window shopped” in the downtown business district, Broadway- Fillmore, Grant Street, and Elmwood Avenue districts, among other places. AM&A’s became known for its ornate Victorian window displays.
AM&A’s store and warehouse is an architecturally rich complex of ten buildings built over several decades, starting in the 1890s, for the J. N. Adam & Co. department store. Upon that company’s demise in 1960, Adam, Meldrum & Anderson moved into the buildings from their original location across Main Street. The Main Street section was built in 1935 to the design of Starrett & Van Vleck, a major New York architectural firm most noted for their department stores, which included Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s,
—Martin Wachadlo, buffaloah.com.
Other buildings in the complex were designed by prominent Buffalo firms Esenwein & Johnson and Green & Wicks.
The height of AM&A’s success in the 1930s brought new displays with costumed figures in sentimental holiday scenes. Electric lighting was an integral element used strategically to add drama and interest. The windows of the department store became an attraction in and of themselves. After its successor, Bon-Ton, closed in 1995, the elaborate displays were put away, but not forever. In 2010, several organizations banded together to restore them to modern electrical standards and put them up in storefronts all along Main Street under the title “Magical Memories on Main Street.” In subsequent years, they were displayed at HSBC Arena, the Convention Center, and again in storefronts on Main Street. Delighted to see the old-fashioned figures and scenes come to life once again, many families ventured downtown for the occasion.
When electric lights were first adopted by cities at the turn of the twentieth century (as a safety mechanism and a way to encourage residents to patronize businesses later into the night), they used similar outdoor displays, sometimes arching over streets, or outlining buildings. The concept was taken to its height during Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition. The 1896 transmission of electric power long-distance, from Niagara Falls to Buffalo gave the region a reason to celebrate and show off its seemingly boundless capacity for innovation. The Electric Tower was a cascade of incandescent light, painted in strikingly bold colors and illuminating the sky for some distance, even on the darkest of evenings.
Five years ago, the Cottage District Association (CDA) on the west side of Buffalo worked to create the new Festival of Lights, which took place largely in the area most popular during the annual Garden Walk: Little Summer Street, 17th Street, and surrounding neighborhoods. Numerous residents participated, lighting and decorating their historic homes in a friendly competition. Neighbors were encouraged to walk or drive around, take pictures of the lighted displays, and submit them for the photo contest. CDA has joined with the Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association to further expand this new holiday tradition across the west side.
Decorated wintertime shop windows continue to hold a special place in the American imagination. With this in mind, a number of University at Buffalo Honors College students have been hard at work on a University Heights neighborhood initiative. Called Light the Heights, it kicked off in 2012.
UB alum Aaron Krolikowski calls it “an attempt to reduce the negative impact of vacant store-fronts and dark streets during the winter months. It’s a low-cost/high-impact project that will help improve neighborhood perceptions and build relationships between different stakeholders in the community.
“ The project involves the collection of donations from community members (i.e., old/new lights and decorations) that are then used to deck out storefronts (vacant and occupied) along Main Street ,” Krolikowski continues. “We’d like to grow and replicate this project on Main Street and Bailey Avenue for winter 2013. Students will lead the design and implementation of this expansion, combining elements of civic engagement and project management skills.”
Students have secured permission from some building owners to string white lights in the leafless trees along the sidewalks, which will create an inviting atmosphere for strolling and shopping. The way we relate to urban downtowns and village main streets, especially in the short days of winter, has been transformed by light. Traditional holiday celebrations were once private and personal, but advancing technology brought us out of our homes, into the previously dark and unknown night. Our meaningful customs, now centered around the use of light in forms both archaic and modern, serve to anchor us in a place and time, giving us a reference point for each passing year of life. We gather in historic buildings—churches, temples, and homes—to celebrate and reestablish connections.
John A. Jakle, City Lights, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2001; Michael Rizzo, Nine Nine Eight: The Glory Days of Buffalo Shopping, Lulu Inc, 2007; Brian Murray, “Christmas Lights and Community Building in America”, Yale College; “A Christmas Tree for the Ages in Madison Square Park”, The Bowery Boys: New York City History, 20 Dec 2010. theboweryboys.blogspot.com/2010/12/christmas-tree-for-ages-in-madison.html; advertisements, AM&A’s Department Store, Buffalo Evening News, 1893 and 1916; Mrs. Harland H. Allen, “Shopping Economy,” Buffalo Evening News, 15 Nov 1926; Martin Wachadlo, “The J.N. Adam & Co./AM&A’s Department Store,” 2003, via Chuck LaChiusa, buffaloah.com; “Return of the AM&A’s Windows,” Western New York Heritage, 2010. wnyheritagepress.org/photos_week_2010/a_m_a_windows/a_m_a_windows_2010.htm
Dana Saylor-Furman offers property and family history research through her website OldTimeRoots.com.