Dread was in the air that December, threats of terrorism and gruesome stories of mass killings in Europe. Even the pope was saying the level of killing was “unprecedented.” An editorial predicted the closing year would be remembered as “a year of unusual horror, wanton disregard for human life, and perplexing uncertainty….”
You have to watch your step in downtown Knoxville this month. The streets are torn up, and you can look down into some holes and see the old streetcar tracks. Step into the wrong vortex, and who knows. You might find yourself in Knoxville 100 years ago.
Politicians of both major parties were congratulating themselves for America’s peacefulness in the face of the daily gore in Europe, even after Americans had died on the torpedoed Lusitania. The Republican Journal offered a seasonal prayer: “Long may our country be known among the nations of the earth as a country whose victories are those of peace, brotherly love, and prosperity.”
If you land in Christmas, 1915, you’ll notice a few differences. But then again, maybe not that many.
Some of the same buildings are still centers of Christmas activity today. The department store known as Arnstein’s, notable for its fine imports, its French kid gloves, its silk kimonos, its “Madeira hand-embroidered linens,” its “crepe de Chine undergarments,” is now a store called Urban Outfitters.
A closer comparison, maybe, is the one then called Newcomer’s, a happy, bright, people’s department store with a toy department (the “Wonderful Toyland”) and a Santa Claus. Newcomer’s carried Tinker Toys, “Erecto Sets,” teddy bears, building blocks, and a mechanical “Creeping Baby.” The same building is now Mast General Store.
A few days before Christmas, Newcomer’s hosted a delegation from “The Garden of Allah,” the traveling show down the street at Staub’s, featuring more than 100 performers, plus camels and horses right on stage. Newcomer’s Christmas-shopping throngs were invited to come look at some real Muslims, and even talk to them. “This will indeed be a treat to see the native sons of the desert in their quaint Oriental costumes.” Their leader, Sheik Ham-med, warned us they might not return our greeting, because they didn’t know much English.
Later, Staub’s offered a Christmas-Day showing of A Fool There Was, a play based on Kipling’s poem, “The Vampire.” Banned in some localities, it was a cautionary play about adultery.
You could find live shows every night, especially at Staub’s and the Grand, which offered a steady diet of vaudeville. An act called Thurber & Thurber, “Eccentric Comedians,” advertised itself with a photograph of two guys with three heads and several legs each. One of the big shows on Gay Street Christmas week was a performance by the Yale Glee Club, featuring mandolins. They arrived on the train in three “special cars.”
But now movies outnumbered vaudeville shows. There were seven cinemas on Gay Street alone. Short novelty films had been popular in Knoxville for more than a decade, but feature films were catching on. Movies were silent, but always had musical accompaniment. The Gay Theatre had an eight-piece band that accompanied movies, like Divorced, starring Hilda Spong.
The city’s finest cinema was called the Queen. Lou Tellegen was starring in The Unknown. The Dutch-born heartthrob was one of moviedom’s idols in 1915. Just 13 years later, Tellegen would be on Gay Street in person, half-forgotten, as a sort of sideshow, part of a vaudeville bill at the Tennessee.
In 1915 Knoxville it was hard to avoid images of Charlie Chaplin, the fresh new comic from England, just 26. He was in two different movies showing the same day, The Champion at the Rex, and A Night in the Show, at the Majestic, which played up the comedy about vaudeville with a big display ad featuring Chaplin’s already-familiar image.
A survey of movies suggests tastes of 1915 were more cosmopolitan than today’s. Movies were about Algerians, Italians, Chinese in interesting situations that didn’t necessarily involve Americans.
At the Gay was a local attraction. Aunt Sally Visits Knoxville was a short, professionally made film starring recognizable locals, including Hugh Tyler, the professional artist who was uncle of young James Agee. It also starred “Mr. Ochs,” as if readers knew which one. Adolph Ochs, the New York Times publisher, occasionally visited to his hometown, but we can’t know whether he made a cameo. The film is considered to be lost.
The Bijou had been mostly a live-performance theater for its six-year history, but in 1915 it was trying movies. On Christmas Day, it showed a movie that had gotten a great deal of national attention, The Battle Cry of Peace. Shown with orchestral accompaniment, it was an apocalyptic film by a pro-war producer, touted by Teddy Roosevelt, but criticized as a plea for militarism. Its motto was “Only the strong are safe.” It’s unclear how popular it was in Knoxville when it opened on Christmas Day.
Besides movies, cars were the big thing. Rodgers & Co., which sold Hupmobiles, Hudsons, and Saxons, was already advertising itself as “The Oldest Automobile Dealer in the Southland.” It was still that, 95 years later, when Rodgers Cadillac finally submitted to national corporate interests.
Automobiles weren’t a handy way to get around in town. There was hardly any place to put them. Downtown was so busy and land was so valuable, it was hard to picture justifying parts of it just for storing cars. “Spin out in the country away from the dust and confusion of the city,” advised Kuhlman Motors, who sold the Indiana-based Overland automobile.
Most people couldn’t afford cars anyway. On Christmas Eve—that one shopping day—the Knoxville Traction Co. estimated they sold 80,000 streetcar fares.
The affluent contemplated trips. The L&N offered connections all the way to Miami, and one advertisement suggests you could even plan your trip to Cuba at the station on the corner of Henley and Western.
Bennett Jared, the Vol substitute halfback critically injured in a mid-field tackle in a Vanderbilt game two months earlier, was reportedly “improving” in a Nashville hospital. He wasn’t improving much. Paralyzed by his injury, “Little Jared,” as he was known, died a few months later.
Market Street—it had recently abandoned its old name, Prince Street, allegedly due to the association with warlike Europeans—offered a big public Christmas Tree, electrically lit, right in the middle of the street, between Union and Clinch. It wasn’t the same place it is now—it couldn’t be, because there were buildings there—but it was an ornament’s throw from it.
A huge crowd, estimated at about 8,000, perhaps the largest that ever gathered on that narrow street, watched quietly. Most were standing in the street. But if you looked up, you’d see that there were people in almost every window of every building’s upper floors. More people were on the roofs.
A Boy Scout bugler opened the ceremony, leading into a trumpet call by the familiar local dance favorite, Crouch’s Band.
The organizations that put it together included the Jovian Society, a club of men interested in the uses of electricity—it was the biggest electrical spectacle of the year, after all—and the Ossoli Circle, the women’s progressive intellectual group, with an assist from the Tuesday Morning Musical Club. “Municipal Christmas trees” were still unusual, introduced just three years earlier in New York, and this was Knoxville’s second. Knoxville led Tennessee’s major cities in establishing a Municipal Tree, and it was seen as a symbol of Knoxville’s progressive spirit.
Mayor McMillan couldn’t make it to the month’s biggest public gathering, for unnamed prior commitments. Vice Mayor Sam E. Hill spoke, voicing a melancholy observation heard from someone nearly every Christmas, if rarely in a speech from a public official lighting a Christmas tree: “You know that Christmas has lost much of its pleasure,” he said. “The enchantment of the days gone by no longer lingers….” Many people his age were nostalgic about noisier Christmases of the past, with bowling tournaments and fireworks parties.
Students from the nearby Boyd’s School, on Union Avenue, 350 of them, formed a choir. Christmas in 1915 was not overtly religious—mentions of Jesus were scant—except in the selection of carols, which were hymns: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Hark the Herald Angels,” and “Silent Night.” The crowd joined in when they sang “Joy to the World.”
They finally threw the big switch, and “innumerable lights” lit up the giant tree, “tier after tier, circuit after circuit, until it was all aglow with the small electric globes emitting their lights of white, red, blue, green, orange, and purple, and above all, a handsome star of brilliant white light, suspended in the air.”
Then, it being Christmas Eve, people went shopping. Stores were open later than usual. Some were even open Christmas morning, as was Dickens’ turkey vendor. On Market Square, farmers were usually told to remove their wagons every evening at 6:30, but on Christmas Eve, they were allowed to stay all night.
Market Master “Uncle John” Montgomery, in charge of the Market House, was unapologetic for closing half a day on Christmas. Seriously, he said, people should do their Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve. Not on Christmas.
Maybe America was a little somber in 1915, due to what was happening in the world. If there were any wacky new toys, they weren’t obvious. Toy stores sold the basics, teddy bears and baby dolls and footballs, but nothing much they didn’t sell in 1914. Some books, children’s series like Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Motion Picture Chums, at Newcomer’s—or the Rover Boys and Our Young Aeroplane Scouts, at Miller’s, which also advertised Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ghostly novella, In the Closed Room.
Some women wanted the stylish new “Jack Tar” middies, the sailor-style blouse you could get at Miller’s. Woods & Taylor’s sold “cravenette” raincoats, “silk sox.” S.H. George’s offered feather boas.
But the big new thing in 1915 was kimonos, even if they were consistently spelled kimonas. (I looked it up; in 1915, “kimona” was the preferred English spelling of the Japanese word.) Kimonos were everywhere, high and low.
Maybe the biggest difference between the Christmases was timing. Holiday shopping started early then, maybe as early as it does now. But in 1915, Christmas shopping wasn’t the same thing as Christmas. It was preparation for Christmas. It was understood that Christmas parties, Christmas trees, even Christmas decorating, wouldn’t happen until the Christmas shopping was over.
Christmas began on Christmas Eve, and not until the sun went down. “Christmas Parties” and “Christmas Dances,” such as the one at Cherokee Country Club, were likely to be on Christmas Day, or in the days just afterward.
Every Christmas in those days had a curiosity, something nobody could figure out. In the past, especially during the saloon era, it had been a puzzling murder. Booze of all sorts was illegal in 1915 Knoxville. Not that it was hard to find. Former liquor dealer J.J. Ashe was in trouble for selling booze discreetly on Emory Place.
Prohibition would engender new crimes, but in Knoxville at least it had seemed to put a damper on impulsive late-night shootings. In any case, Knoxville was quieter in 1915, and there weren’t any fresh murders to talk about. That year, the Christmas curiosity was the Blue Rabbit.
Described as a “freak of nature,” it materialized in a crate on Market Square. It was said to have been captured in the forests of North Carolina. The fur was “rather blue, with an admixture of gray, and [it] was quite curly.” One country spectator declared it had to be “part possum.” Others speculated it was kin to a Belgian hare. “The pedigree of the animal was not learned, but it attracted much attention,” a reporter remarked. Later, a local celebrity, elderly artist Lloyd Branson, purchased the blue rabbit and put it on display in his shop window.
Christmas in Knoxville always seemed to catch a sentimental reporter off guard. One remarked that a spectator needs only to “stand on one of the busy corners and watch the passing throng, listen to the honk of the automobiles, or catch the vari-colored twinkle of the electric signs, to realize that Knoxville is one of the coming cities of the Southland, and that it is coming fast. There is a cosmopolitan air about the streets. The many moving-picture palaces, offering all the latest theatrical stars, the show windows with their elaborate Christmas decorations, the florist shops with masses of handsome orchids, roses, and violets, the brilliant jewelry shops, the immense department stores, the wonderful market [Market Square, that is] containing everything that the most fastidious taste of modern man could wish to eat—all this goes to prove that Knoxville is a real city….”
The unnamed reporter concluded, “Every one in Knoxville except the dead ones has caught the Christmas spirit, and when one gets that, one doesn’t mind spending money.”