When Albany had a Christmas Parade

From the late 1930’s, with an hiatus for World War II, until 1966, Whitney’s Department Store sponsored a Christmas Parade through downtown Albany.12278763_920020901379506_1722683508307449656_n
Whitney’s was 1 of the 2 anchor department stores in downtown. In the 1880s Mr. Whitney, a dry goods merchant already in business prior to the Civil War, built a large 6 floor store on N. Pearl to cater to the carriage trade. Whitney’s in downtown Albany closed in 1968 (it survived for a couple more years at a Stuyvesant Plaza location). The building was demolished in the early 1970s. Today the location is about the middle of the intersection of Pine St. and N. Pearl St.

The Christmas Parade was held in mid-November (to work kids into the Christmas toy frenzy) and the route varied over the years, but it always wended its way down State St and N. Pearl. It drew thousands from Albany and surrounding areas. The Parade culminated with the arrival of Santa in front of Whitney’s Toyland, where children could then visit Santa for the rest of the Christmas season. (Sounds like “A Christmas Story”.)

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Thanks to Chuck Miller for his permission to use his pics of the Parade in the mid-1960s and to my brother Mike for his photo with Whitney’s Santa in 1959.

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Note: some of the funkier balloons in the 1960s Parade are holdovers from the 1930’s Parade.. waste not; want not.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Man who Brought Christmas to Albany – Santa Claus and the First U.S. Christmas Card

Christmas in Albany? Not so much.

The Dutch who settled in Albany celebrated St. Nicholas Day (St Nicholas was also known as Sinterklaas) with feasting and frolics in early December. Sinterklaas was a kindly religious figure in a red robe who brought presents and went down a chimney to fill stockings with presents. But the Dutch reserved Christmas for religious observances and then raised the roof on New Year’s Day, with much merry making and exchanging of gifts. The Protestant Germans who settled here in the 18th century did have a tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas Day and sometimes Christmas as well (the Germans pretty much rocked the whole month of December); such festivities were private –not for public display. BUT the English “Yankees” who came to Albany from New England in the 1700s were not big on Christmas revelry; that was hangover from the Puritans and the Mayflower who actually banned Christmas in the 1600s. At best a pagan ritual; worst case .. celebrating Christmas was blasphemy.

Even after the Revolutionary War, Albany didn’t really have its Christmas groove. But the idea of Christmas was catching on. By 1813 a few ads appear in newspapers for Albany stores selling Christmas as well as New Year’s gifts.

Washington Irving Wins the War on Christmas

Enter Washington Irving, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. In the early 1820’s Irving published five very popular stories about what Christmas was like in Merry Olde England (the English, at least in the Mother Country had transcended their aversion to Christmas). The stories describe holiday customs and traditions: feasting, gifts, mistletoe, music, family games, Yule logs and candles that resound with joy and merriment. Irving’s Christmas Eve is magical. In one of the stories, he makes an actual pitch for Christmas; the traditions are too beautiful to lose and winter is a cruel season – we NEED Christmas. Washington sealed the deal;. his descriptions were enticing and seductive- his descriptions flawless. Who didn’t want to celebrate Christmas? By 1822, the Troy Sentinel publishes “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (a/k/a “The Night before Christmas”) by Clement Moore, an Episcopalian clergyman from Rhinebeck. Christmas is now officially a thing. But we still don’t have a Santa.

Irving had also done a splendid job of describing St, Nicholas Day in his first work, “A History of New York” in 1809; there were other pamphlets and books that told the St. Nicholas story. Over the next decade or so there are more stories about Christmas and St. Nicholas Day until the 2 holidays sort of merge into one. The merging is more of a process, rather than an event. The Dutch edge towards Christmas from St. Nicholas celebrations; the Yankees get the idea it’s ok to have fun on Christmas.. and the Germans, well, it was all good and Gemütlichkeit; Germans never need a reason to party.

The “Yankees” of Albany and New York appropriated the fun Dutch traditions for Christmas. Sinterklaas becomes Santa Claus; he’s described as a decidedly more English Falstaff-like guy.. his clerical robes are exchanged for a red suit and he becomes positively roly-poly. But we still don’t know what he looks like- there are no good pictures to accompany the written descriptions.

Enter Richard H. Pease
dRichard Pease was born in Connecticut in 1813. By the mid 1830’s he’d moved to Albany. Pease was a talented lithographer and engraver; also an amazing entrepreneur. In the late 1830s he established Pease’s Great Variety Store at 50 Broadway in Albany. If you wanted it, the Great Variety Store appeared to have it, especially as the “holydays” (holidays) of Christmas and New Year’s came around. Pease was a salesman, and he used his lithography skills to sell his merchandise. In 1842 the first image of Santa Claus as we know him today (almost) is printed in one of Pease’s ads. Pease clearly has read Santa descriptions from the previous decade; the Pease Santa is chunky, with a beard (not yet white) and suit. In his store ad, Santa is ready to climb down a chimney and there is a reindeer on the roof. His bishop’s miter had been traded for a peeked hat.

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Over the next decades other images of Santa emerge, some very creepy, but Pease’s image gets wide circulation in newspapers across the country for many years. His talent and imagination created the basis for an enduring image of Santa. Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist, creates the next iconic Santa for “Harper’s Weekly” (1880s), drawing on the Pease Santa. The Nast image is finally replaced as the official Santa in the 1930s when Coca-Cola creates a genius ad campaign in the 1930s Depression, designed to get people to drink more soda in the winter. Coke.. it’s not just for summer.

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Pease Strikes Again – the first American Christmas Card

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The Great Variety Store thrives. By the mid -1840s, Pease moves to a new building at 516 Broadway and opens The Temple of Fancy. Just the name makes you want to shop. It’s basically the ‘Emporium of Everything”. Still a marketing genius, in 1849, he decides to make a special card for Christmas, which is the first Christmas card produced in the Unites States. (The first card ever was created in England in 1843. Alas, Christmas cards don’t really catch on until Boston-based printer Louis Prang started selling color cards in 1875.

What Happened to Albany’s Marketing Genius?

The Temple of Fancy thrives and Pease creates a number of wildly popular children’s books and games. The Temple closes about 1853 when Pease moves on to another successful enterprise. In 1854 Pease purchases the Albany Agricultural Works, and operates it as the Excelsior Agricultural Works with his son Charles, who previously owned a similar business in Tivoli Hollow. It looks like they were quite successful and we are on the trail of a potential Pease patent for a potato planter.

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor

Because Santa absolutely, positively has to be there on time, he flies an Albany Cutter.

25542458_1511345912246999_2234010446663884625_oDuring that latter part of the 19th century, the 20th and into the 21st, Santa has been frequently depicted arriving or departing in an Albany sleigh (or “cutter”). It has a “swell body” , distinctive barrel-chested nose and matching curved runners. In the 19th century, this kind of sleigh was the most expensive and sporty design available; depicting Santa’s arrival in one in 1880 would be akin to having him show up in a Ferrari today.

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The reason for the association, however, is apt because the Albany sleigh became the “must-have” in the 19th century. James Goold of Albany developed the design in the early 1820s, when unartistic “piano” box sleighs were more common. Goold’s shape was more fanciful, and it was harder to imitate because the body and runners were built as a singular unit–the runners had to match the curve of the carriage.

Each new design ended up having its own unique character and appearance. Obviously the shapes changed over time, but it was always fashionable to own any Albany sleigh because, like stylish cars today, people could always identify the latest iterations.

Albany sleighs were available with all sorts of decorative painting and upholstery options. In many cases these patterns were complete one-offs, with wealthy owners deciding every detail. Such customization meant that Albany cutters were always costly, and mass-market models were rarely available until late in the 1800s.

The maker, James Gould, was born in Connecticut in 1790; when he was about 14 the family moved to Rensselaer County. After serving several apprenticeships and stop and starts he came to Albany in 1815 and rented a building on Maiden Lane and Dean (behind what is now the Foley Court House) from Peter Gansevoort (the uncle of Herman Melville) with the intention of establishing a carriage works. The business thrived. In 1831, Goold was commissioned to build the “coach tops” of the 6 carriages for the Mohawk Hudson Railroad, the first railroad in New York State. The railroad’s maiden run started at “The Point” where Western and Madison Ave. converge in Pine Hills and ran to Schenectady.

Despite setbacks, including 2 devastating fires in 1838 and 1849, the business flourished; a huge factory was located at the intersection of Hamilton, Division and Union streets, bordering on Broadway, into the early 20th century. The company built carriages, stage coaches, horse cars, electric trolley carriages, railroad road cars and sleighs. But it was the sleigh, the Albany Cutter, for which Goold is remembered.

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The Cutter was iconic, sexy and sinuous. It came in custom colors (red with black trim and hint of gold was most in demand) and could have special carvings. It was sleek and fast, the choice of millionaires, like Vanderbilt and Morgan and even Russian Boyars and aristocrats. Over time, Goold developed 2 seat and even 4 seat sleighs of the same style, perfect for wealthy families with country homes on the River in the Hudson Valley.

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And perfect for the traditional Gilded Age Santa we’ve come to love.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor