Editor’s note: This story originally printed in 2014.
What does Big Jim want for Christmas? How about an oyster knife made locally by Peter C. Ott or a fashionable Stetson hat from W.R. Carter for $3.50?
What does Little Jimmie want? A riding horse or boy’s wagon from Joseph Combel, The Hardware Man? Combel also sells such kid wonders as doll carriages, tea sets and mechanical toys — ranging from 25 cents to $5 — in a display that would gladden any Santa heart.
And Mom? How about 2 pounds of those fancy “evaporated” apricots from California that come but once a year and cost 50 cents, or perhaps a manicure set from Grant’s Drug Store?
Little Janie will be quite happy with a Kodak from the drug store where she can also get supplies for these miraculous picture takers. Kodak’s price for the No. 3 Bulls-Eye Camera, Model A: $8.
Obviously by the holiday wants and prices, this is not 2014. Janie could never have dreamed that some day a small, cordless phone would also be a camera that needed no film. One dollar for Janie would be $24.50 today.
The Herald time machine
Courtesy of this newspaper, we take a step backward to spy on the Mississippi Gulf Coast of a century ago.
The year is 1908, and we travel via a special Christmas edition that the newspaper printed that year, a much-anticipated and appreciated 56-page publication. For a society not yet inundated with television, radio and the Internet, this magazine-style edition was a keeper and supplied several weeks of reading.
The pages are filled with mini-novels, witticisms, poetry, holiday meditations, histories about Christmas and New Year’s, national and international holiday traditions, even a jig-saw puzzle to paste together. Unquestionably, this unusual publication was well received by readers and rival newspapers.
From the Bay St. Louis Echo came this: “All praise and credit to the enterprise and success of the Biloxi Herald on the occasion of its Christmas edition.”
And this from the Yazoo City Sentinel: “The Biloxi Herald’s holiday number was issued in magazine form and a very handsome and creditable number it is, containing 56 pages of choice holiday matter and announcements of the progressive merchants of Biloxi. Viewed from every standpoint, it is the most creditable holiday number that as yet reached the Sentinel’s exchange table.”
Wow! The Wilkes family, who in 1884 founded what is now the Sun Herald, struck the reader jackpot. The Biloxi Daily Herald, as it was called in 1908, covered Biloxi like a blanket but also big events and social goings-on across the Coast. Within a year, the newspaper would add Gulfport to its masthead, and today it covers all coastal South Mississippi.
An old copy surfaces
A faded and crumbling partial copy of the Christmas edition was brought to the Sun Herald newsroom by native Biloxian Evelyn Thompson, a 27-year Herald advertising retiree who thought editors might want to see how the newspaper once covered the winter holidays.
“My grandmother had the section in her possession all those years,” Evelyn said. “1908 is the same year my mother was born so I think that is why she saved it.”
At one point her grandmother, Edna Earl Lyons Lynd, moved to California and the Herald holiday edition went with her, only to be returned years later to her daughter, Anna Earl Broderick, in a trunk of memorabilia. Evelyn eventually inherited it, went through old family papers and found it.
The 106-year-old supplement is missing many pages and in danger of crumbling further. But as luck would have it, the entire section was once microfilmed. We now know it was filled to the gills with advertisements, entertainments and reading in the flowery late-Victorian style of that era.
In the introduction, the Wilkeses explained:
“In presenting our first Christmas Edition ... we are proud of this number we have just published, and we hope that each person whose hands receive a copy will appreciate it enough to preserve it.”
The section was multi-purposed as a reader keepsake, a moneymaker for the small, struggling Herald staff and a megaphone for local businesses.
“New Orleans has her Canal Street and New York has her Broadway, but Biloxi has Howard Avenue, and there is no other street in any of the Gulf Coast cities that can compare with it. It is the shopping center of full 15,000 people and Biloxi merchants are preparing to make it more attractive this year than ever.
“Come to Biloxi to do your Christmas shopping where you will find the season’s best gifts outspread for your inspection in a score of brilliantly illuminated stores and emporiums ... Too, your dollar is worth more to you in Biloxi than anywhere else on earth — it’s liable to come back.”
Biloxi claimed spotlight
But what of the other Coast cities? Biloxi was then the proclaimed “Queen City,” and it boasted the most merchants, most modern innovations and publicity savvy. Nationally it was the most widely recognized Coast town.
In that context, this publication does not seem so lopsidedly pro-Biloxi. Residents from across the region came by trolley, boat, horse or the occasional automobile to shop and mingle. The newspaper even published a special combined Saturday edition delivered by mail across the Coast for $1.50 a year.
For this Christmas section, the Herald staff solicited readers for material, much like a 21st-century blog might do now. That’s likely why the pages are filled with poems, jokes, classic Christmas illustrations from Santa to the Madonna, fictional and true stories, histories and thoughtful sermons from local ministers.
Biloxi merchants also opened their wallets for advertisements. By studying the products they sold for the holidays we can learn what people a century ago coveted, wore, ate and paid. Next week, we’ll take a peek at all that.
To sum up for now, it’s not difficult to understand why Thompson’s grandmother tucked her copy away in a trunk, taking it out occasionally for a trip down memory lane. I do wonder if she smiled at this now out-of-date joke, likely submitted by a Herald reader:
“I don’t see what makes that young friend of mine so very popular,” said Willie Wishington. “He is in demand for any number of Christmas parties.
“That is very easily explained,” answered Miss Cayenne. “He is so near-sighted that he is continually mistaking holly for mistletoe.”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.