What was Christmas like 100 years ago? Many things in Knoxville were different. There was no TV, no Internet, and for most of the decade, no movies with sound. But the holidays were really not so different from the holidays today. In fact, you don’t need a whole lot of imagination to walk around downtown and picture it. Most of the places that were elemental to a jazz-age yuletide are still recognizable today, and some of them are almost as festive as they were back then.
People wrapped presents for family and friends, and began shopping for them about a month before the holiday. People got Christmas trees and put them up in their living rooms. Multi-colored electric lights on long wires, both for trees and for general decoration was already standard, replacing the previous custom of illuminating trees with candles, which fire chiefs had been warning was a hazard for years.
Decorating trees didn’t start as early as it does today. Before then, most people didn’t put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, when the holiday season really started. But by the Roaring Twenties, Christmas Creep seemed to be stretching the season earlier. Though most families maintained the Christmas Eve tree-trimming tradition—in 1922, for example, cut trees didn’t even arrive on Market Square until Dec. 16—it would appear that the beginnings of the habit of decorating just after Thanksgiving began to emerge in the ‘20s.
Historic Tennessee Theatre
Knoxville already had a tradition of a gigantic public Christmas tree (it was a real one back then, found out in the country, cut down, and hauled in with some ceremony), and an electric lighting ceremony, usually on Market Street near Market Square, that was always a spectacle not to be missed. And it was in 1928—weeks after the opening of the new Tennessee Theatre—that the city welcomed its first Santa Claus Parade. The idea of a holiday parade was fairly new, nationally. Several of Knoxville’s earliest parades along Gay Street featured enormous fanciful floats that wowed the crowds even if they had nothing to do with either Christmas or Knoxville; they were borrowed from Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York. To herald that first parade, the city placed 1,500 cedar trees along the route, many of them mounted in flag sockets. In East Tennessee, cedar was the Christmas tree of choice.
One big difference was obvious at the train stations. Both the Southern and the L&N were busy 24 hours a day—not just with people coming home for the holidays, but with regional shoppers on a mission. In the 1920s, long before big-chain stores were in most small towns, the trains brought shoppers from as far away as Kentucky and North Carolina. They’d often get a room at the Farragut (now the Hyatt Place on Gay Street) or the St. James or the Atkin and spend a couple of days just shopping to surprise folks back home with the latest clothes and treasures and fads and appliances and oddities from Knoxville. Hence there were more and bigger stores than you might expect in a city of perhaps 90,000.
Most local shoppers didn’t have cars, either. Some did, and some affluent folks surprised their spouses with shining new Packards or Studebakers in the driveway. But even affluent suburbanites took the streetcar downtown to shop. There were 14 streetcar lines, touching almost every neighborhood in the city. They’d shop and hope they’d find room on the seat for their bags.
The biggest store was Miller’s, in the brick building now reimagined as a modern office building at the corner of Gay and Union (today you can find local favorites like Cruze Farm Ice Cream and Bliss & Tori Mason). It was notable for its busy mezzanine, visible from the first floor, creating a lively big two-story space.
Arnstein’s, in the still-impressive Arnstein Building at Market and Union, was just a little fancier (and taller) than Miller’s, with lots of designer fashions and imported goods. Founder Max Arnstein, a German immigrant, and his wife Lalla still ran the place then. (Today you’ll find Urban Outfitters on the ground level floor.)
Gay Street looking north towards Miller's Department Store (left of center), 1920s | courtesy Knoxville History Project)
Sterchi’s built its huge headquarters building on Gay Street in 1925. Unlike downtown’s other department stores, Sterchi’s was the headquarters of a very big chain with 60 stores; they even claimed to be “the Biggest Furniture Company in the World.” Founder James Sterchi, son of Swiss immigrants, was still very active in the business. They did sell furniture but offered more than sofas and dining tables. Their motto was “everything from a teaspoon to a piano.” Sterchi’s sold phonographs. With some models less expensive than they used to be, phonographs were very popular in the 1920s, no longer just for the rich. And because Sterchi’s sold phonographs, they also sold accessories to phonographs, including records, including jazz, opera, military band, religious music. That decade, Sterchi’s was playing a national role in recording, experimenting with forms of music never recorded before, including “hillbilly” and folk—some of it recordings of blind musicians who played on downtown sidewalks, hoping for the next buffalo nickel. The building Sterchi’s built is now residential and known as Sterchi Lofts.
Maple Hall – A Spirited Bowling Experience
Other popular department stores busy at the holiday season included George’s on Gay Street and Woods & Taylor, with its elaborate multi-level interior on Wall at Market Square, and dozens of smaller stores —all within a five-minute walk of each other. Stand across the street and look at the elaborate late-Victorian architecture of the 400 block of Gay: it looks a lot like it did then, and a century ago, most of those buildings were hosting holiday sales. One place, Charles Cullen’s, at 416 S. Gay (today there you’ll find Maple Hall – a boutique bowling alley in the level below ground), advertised “Holiday Goods” all year round. Although they were known for china, glassware, and silver, they also had a substantial upscale toy department.
It may be easiest to picture an authentic 1920s Christmas at Mast General Store, partly because they’re a deliberately old-fashioned store anyway, with toy and candy department and lots of wares that would have been recognizable to 1920s shoppers—but also because it occupies the space of a real 1920s department store known as Newcomer’s, known for their festivity. Although it was run by a Jewish family, they advertised an authentic Santa Claus, greeting kids in the basement “Toyland.” Of course, there were about a dozen stores that claimed to have the real Santa Claus in their employ.
East Tennessee History Center (formerly the Post Office)
In fact, most of the landmarks of a Knoxville Christmas in the 1920s are still here today. The western half of the East Tennessee History Center was the post-office building. On Dec. 23, 1920, it processed more than 109,000 Christmas letters. It was their biggest mail-processing day in history. The cancelling machine overheated and had to be shut down to cool off.
Probably the region’s biggest center for yuletide activity, though, was Market Square. For rich and poor, Black and white, Market Square was an essential part of Knoxville’s holiday experience. The Market House was a long, narrow building that occupied the center of the square then, with broad alleys on either side, and inside you could buy everything you need for any holiday dinner; outside, you could buy wreaths and holly and Christmas trees, some of them cut just yesterday up in the mountains. And from the stores along the sides—the buildings mostly still there today—you could buy toys, socks, candy, tropical fruit, neckties, ornaments.
Tropical fruit in particular was an exotic treat that many didn’t see except at Christmastime: oranges, dates, figs—and especially Caswell Grapefruit. Even though it was grown on plantations in Florida, Caswell Grapefruits were a local favorite because William Caswell, who grew them, was a Knoxvillian. Caswell Park in East Knoxville, which became known for baseball in the 1920s, began with his gift to the city. You always could get them at T.E. Burns, the double-arched wholesale grocer at the north end of Market Square—along with a lot of other exotic and delicious treats from around the world.
Christmas Pageant at St John's Episcopal Church, circa 1920s. | courtesy McClung Historical Collection)
Of course, there were religious services. The Catholic churches - Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost - held multiple masses on Dec. 25, often beginning early in the morning, before dawn. St. John’s Episcopal, being the most English of the churches, was famous for decking out for Christmas with lush greenery inside, and Christmas music featuring locally notable vocalists.
Like today, Knoxvillians had a wide choice of new movies to see in several downtown theaters, like the Bijou, the Queen, the Strand, and the Lyric. Some theaters were for white people only. The Lyric and the Bijou made room for both races, but in segregated seating. The Gem, on Vine Avenue, was just for African Americans. Unlike today, when a lot of performing-arts organizations take extended breaks during the holidays, Knoxville’s vaudeville theaters, most of them on Gay Street, also featured live performers almost every night, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.