Monday, December 19, 2011

History: Dangerous Ideas from Christmas Past

Twenty years ago, Dana Carvey’s character, “Grumpy Old Man,” was a popular recurring feature of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

He’d offer an assessment of current times compared to the so-called “good old days,” highlighting some barbaric practices of the past (exaggerated to great comedic effect) with the closing line, “And we liked it!”

I was reminded of that concept while perusing some shocking guidelines suggested in the early 1900s regarding the enjoyment of a safe Christmas season. Regional newspapers carried a list of suggestions for an enhanced experience … and I liked it!

Tragic fires related to trees, decorations, and gifts had become all too common, prompting the release of advice on safe practices. A good place to start was decorating the tree.

Lit candles … yes, with actual flames … were a common tree adornment. Those lucky enough to have the latest technology (electricity) were urged to switch to the lesser of two evils: “There is some danger from the widely sold colored electric light assemblies, due to insufficient insulation and other causes, but the hazard is small beside that of the lighted candle.”

A change to metal ornaments was suggested as well, and for good reason. Most decorations were made from two materials: paper (highly flammable), and celluloid pyralin, an early plastic with wonderful properties: “… extremely inflammable and will ignite at a comparatively low temperature.” What a great pairing beside lit candles!

For the look of snow on the tree in 1913, it was suggested: “Do not use cotton to represent snow. If you must have snow, use asbestos fiber.” In 1921, tinsel was also available in a new, nonflammable format: “Metal tinsel with flake asbestos and powdered mica make excellent materials for snow effects, and will not burn.”

Yes, flake asbestos. Kind of reminds you of today’s pharmaceutical advertisements: if the illness doesn’t kill you, the medicine and its side effects might.

Gift ideas regarding toys were of the mindset, “Let the buyer beware,” suggesting certain choices, but leaving plenty of room for Darwinian outcomes.

A favorite: “Toys involving the use of alcohol, gasoline, or kerosene should be avoided.” Another good one: “Low-priced electrical playthings should be viewed with suspicion since they are often insecurely wired and flimsily constructed.”

The movie industry was just coming into its own, prompting this suggestion: “An extremely hazardous plaything of comparatively recent development is the home motion-picture projector using celluloid film, and often illuminated with a flimsy, calcium-carbide lamp. It would be difficult to place a more dangerous combination in the hands of children.” Despite that assessment, it was still available on store shelves for the less-discriminating buyer.

Cautions were also extended to those who portrayed Santa. “The impersonator should avoid long cotton whiskers and should keep away from lights and open fires. As an additional protection, the costume used may be partially fireproofed with the following solution.” After explaining the mix of chemicals and how to apply it, a backup plan was offered.

“If Santa’s clothing DOES catch fire, he should be rolled in a rug or woolen cloth and the flames smothered as promptly as possible. The flames should be kept from the face.” And nothing says Christmas like the image of a flaming Santa Claus.

Ahhh … the good old days!

Photo: From 1913, an actual newspaper notice touting safety improvements.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region’s past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley’s books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





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