The Westerly Sun Column | A trip back in time to visit Christmas Past

December 26, 2023

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and I hope it’s a calm, happy, and restful Monday for those who don’t. The library is closed today, but you can still access plenty of books and resources through our website … including over 50 years of old Westerly Sun papers! This week, I decided to take a trip through the archive to see what Westerly was up to around Christmastime in the 20th century.

News stories from 50 to 100 years ago are often much different than the ones we see today, but it’s also enjoyable to make note of the things that have NOT changed much. Throughout the years, the front page of the paper mentioned the “brilliant Christmas music” performed during the Church of the Immaculate Conception’s midnight Mass, as well as the popular door-decorating contests, tree-lightings, and caroling programs in town. The Westerly Lodge of Elks was often applauded for the parties they threw for children, and, each year, residents and local organizations banded together to provide boxes with food and goods to the economically disadvantaged. As could be expected, stores experienced high foot traffic due to last-minute shoppers in the days leading up to Christmas, and the post offices were absolutely swamped — on Dec. 23, 1907, they noted that 4,000 postcards had been sent, and 5,000 1-cent stamps had been sold in just one day.

Remember 1-cent stamps? No, me neither. One thing that certainly HAS changed over the years is the cost of … well, everything. In 1899 there was an ad for a “cottage house of 5 rooms, garage, and a ½ acre of land. Price only $1,500”. According to an inflation calculator, this is worth nearly $27,000 in today’s money, so just slightly (cough) less than the asking price of local homes today. In 1933, you could enjoy 2 pounds of hamburger for $0.26, a coil spring mattress for $5.95, or a round-trip excursion to Block Island aboard the Elizabeth Ann for $1. That’s not to say things were easy, though. In 1928, an article lamented that the ratio of married women who work outside the home was now greater than 1 in 11, though they also noted that most are not working for “purely selfish reasons,” but to “bring the family income up to a livable wage.” Now that part is relatable.

As could be expected, a high percentage of news articles are what I’d refer to as “doom and gloom” (why were there SO many house fires?), but I prefer to seek out the positive and quirky stories. For instance, I enjoyed a 1934 article about the residents in a transient relief camp in Quonset Point who had managed to tame 22 skunks and were preparing to share Christmas dinner with them … provided they continued to be well-behaved. “Not one of the 22 skunks thus far has broken confidence with any of the men.” If that’s not heartwarming, I don’t know what is! During this holiday season and in the new year, I hope we continue the good traditions of the past by sharing kindness (and dinner) with friends, with strangers, and with the occasional tame furball.

by Cassie Skobrak, Adult Services Librarian

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