Giving her a vacuum cleaner for a Christmas gift in 1920 Phoenix, Arizona
Since it's Christmastime, I've been paging through the old Phoenix newspapers at the Library of Congress site, trying to understand more about how people celebrated Christmas in old-time Phoenix. I'm interested in everything, what they ate, what they did, and of course the gifts they gave. So when I found this 1920 ad for the "Incomparable Gift" - a vacuum cleaner to make it a Royal Christmas for her, I stopped in my tracks, and I thought "really?"
Now, I'm old marketing guy, and I know that just because something is advertised as a great Christmas gift doesn't mean it is. Personally, I've made a lot of ads in my day, and I suppose that if the "Acme Coal Company" wanted me to draw a cartoon of happy children receiving lumps of coal for Christmas, I would. But maybe not. I draw the ethical line somewhere!
Anyway, of course I laughed at the thought of some idiot husband giving his wife a vacuum cleaner for Christmas! And now I'm pondering if it might not have been such a bad idea, after all. It was Phoenix, and it was 1920. But I really don't know, so I'm going to time-travel and see what it would have looked like in that time and place.
The first thing that you have to realize is that women "of wealth", like the ones who lived on Millionaire's Row, where the Rosson House is, didn't do housekeeping. They had people who helped them. From the old books I've read, this was even fairly common in households that weren't terribly rich, what we would call Middle-Class nowadays. The new technology replaced "the help".
The technology had been quickly changing, including the fairly recent addition of electricity to Phoenix. The old-timers would have remembered back a couple of decades, when just having electricity marked you as very wealthy, and of course things go from being luxury items to things taken for granted. I've never known a time when everyone didn't have air conditioning in their houses in Phoenix, for example.
And with the new technology in old-time Phoenix, women had been able to do a lot more things than their mothers, or grandmothers ever could. There were electric washing machines (I saw them advertised as Christmas gifts in the 1920 paper, too!) and electric fans, and all kinds of state-of-the-art devices. It was a different time from now, but I'm inclined to think that people liked having that stuff, and if "the girls" came around for tea, these were things that could show off wealth, like having a TV set in the 1950s.
But my 21st Century mind still isn't convinced that a 1920s husband should have given his 1920s wife a vacuum cleaner for Christmas. I've never been married, but I know enough about women to think that a better gift would have been some Donofrio's Chocolate! Those Camel Back chocolates look good - and I'd help with them!
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Posted by Brad Hall