Raccoon Coats to Atari Games: A Century's Worth of Shopping

If these last days before the Christmas holidays find you broke, frantically tearing around in search of gifts to bring home or, even worse, desperately scouring bulletin boards for cheap rides to Des Moines, cheer up. You're in exactly the same position as a century of Harvard predecessors. But enterprising Harvard Square tradesmen have always been willing to ease the students' plight with their cornucopia of wares--all in hope of augmenting their own Christmas bounties. Here's a sampling of vintage ads--the best of their years--from holiday seasons past.

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For the Harvard men of the 1880s who wanted to look dapper for their home town sweethearts, an Ulster Coat imported from London was de rigeur at $12.00. Those of robust constitutions travelling short distances could opt to dash home through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh rented from Blake, Hack, and Livery Stable complete with lap robe and whip.

The 1890s offered Lounging Coats, Smoking Jackets and Negligee Coats at $6.50 for those planning to entertain at home. If he chose to venture outside, the man about town sported gloves of choice skins and correct shades, each pair selling for one dollar. Other gentlemanly accessories included silk neckwear at 50 cents a piece.

With the turn of the century came a new list of modern trinkets for the Harvard man who had everything. A 1908 Rambler Roadster topped the list at $2250.00--perfect for that spin around the park. The vehicle contained all the latest technological advances, including a rumble seat and leather interior. Serious recreation seekers could reach Bermuda in only 45 hours, aboard the new twin screw S. S. Bermudia. And to take home to the family, the 1908 Harvard Yearbook bound in Crimson and lettered in Gold sold for one dollar.


By 1912, getting home for the holidays was no problem. No hill too steep no sand too deep could stop the Jackson Majestic car for $1975.00 Electric starter, lights, and horns distinguished this auto from earlier models. A train ride to New York was $2.40 and west to California was only $59.65. To earn extra spending money, a creative student could write scripts for moving pictures for $25 per week. The demand for this new form of entertainment inspired film agencies to advertise for aspiring authors, offering $100 for an innovative screenplay.

In the roaring '20s, luxury knew no bounds. Five dollars could buy a ticket to New York on the Eastern steam ship lines. Delicious food, incomparable service, and a dance or two entertained the leisured class on their voyage. Those most pressed for time could make the trip in an hour and 45 minutes in 14-seater, heated planes that flew daily from Boston to New York. Even Santa "pastured his reindeer and ordered a monoplane for his deliveries," according to Rollo airlines. They claimed that the merry old soul had "gone modern." A raccoon coat could provide an extra layer of warmth on those journeys.

Last minute shopping at Filene's could be relaxing in 1935. The department store offered the services of personal shoppers who, provided with your gift list, money, and mail instructions, would "never give up on their search for the perfect present for the trusting soul." Or, if you preferred to shop in New York, an elegant room at the Plaza Hotel cost five dollars a night and offset the drudgery of last minute shopping. Standing out in many shop windows would be the new semi-portable Electrola radio for $45.95.

War bonds replaced more frivolous gifts in the early '40s, as the shadow of global war fell over Harvard. Cambridge shops advertised bargain rates for all types of uniforms. Tailored to the individual needs of each fighting man, these custom-made uniforms had served on "land and sea with distinction in five wars."

As the '50s rolled in, shoppers unrolled softwool pullover sweaters for $4.95. Also popular were Harvard cocktail shakers and glasses for $21.00 a dozen, and sporty suspenders for $5.00--all of which could fit into the corner of a suitcase. The perfect gift for Miss Radcliffe '55 was a mixed and matched set of cashmere and tweed. This classic outfit, sold for under $35, consisted of a long-sleeved cardigan and a skirt boasting a "kick-pleat to aid that mad dash to class."

Bellbottoms, peasant blouses, and velvetine baby doll dresses were the things to bring home in the '60s. Since few could pass up the price of $4.95 to $8.00 a pair, you could never have too many pairs of denim or hopsack Levis. But what students didn't spend on clothes they made up to, in audio equipment. Hot sellers in 1968 were Landberg of America tape decks and the K United Audio dual turntable.

During the Mc Decade the seventies specialized gifts became popular once again. A play by play recording of the 1968 Yale Game wrapped in quick pack instant wrapping paper made gift giving simple. But once again, war up staged commercialism as pleas for money for Vietnam POWs cropped up among the more standard acts. Music, however, remained introspective. Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters," Joe Walsh's "The smoker you drink, the player you get," and Emerson Lake and Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery" are a sampling of that decade's musical fare.

Today's "vintage" gifts include: E T dolls and audio-visual games. Desperate as students are for innovative presents to take home, the new Bell Telephone gift certificates can make long distance almost as cheap as being there. Steve's ice cream doesn't travel but minicomputers can make the trip. If worse comes to worst, there are always those gifts your Secret Santa gave you.