On November 22, 1884, newspaper editor Stafford Cleveland published the first issue of the Fort Myers Press (predecessor of the News-Press). That and every issue published since is on microfilm in the Fort Myers (FL) library downtown.
Recently, on a rainy weekday afternoon, I went into the microfilm room in search of newspaper ads or copy of any kind that would give us a glimpse into Christmases past in Fort Myers. I selected the first roll of microfilm, the one containing copies of the first decade of Press issues, and threaded it through the microfilm reader onto a take-up spool. Using a mouse, I pressed the “forward” arrow on the viewer screen and the reels went into lumbering motion with a sound like slither-thump. I slither-thumped my way through the November and December issues of 1884 without finding any mention of Christmas.
Holding the “fast-forward” button down to move sl-ither-ither-ither-ithering through the first 11 months of 1885, I thumped down on December. The thump is followed by a brief rocking motion, so it’s a second before the type wavers into focus. The type in these 1880s issues is small, close-set and unrelieved by imagery of any kind. Squinting even through my readers as I scanned the columns of the December issue, I smiled to discover, among the news stories, moralizing tales of pure fiction.
On every conceivable level, these newspapers are simply wonderful.
After slither-thumping back and forth over the December, 1885, issue, I found at last a column with mentions of Christmas. The first gives us marvelous insight into the toys of the era and the last sentence is, well, rather peculiar. It’s hilarious, actually.
Apparently, Mr. Blount (below) saw no need to stock anything special for Christmas because he had enough stuff to choose from already.
And finally, for the man or woman who has everything—
Sl-ither-ither-ither-ither-ithering through 1886 to December, I thumped down on this:
And then there’s this general invitation to a party at Waddy Thompson’s.
Well, if “everybody” in Fort Myers went, the Thompsons had maybe 349 or so people cramming their way into their “spacious mansion.” Maybe “everybody” meant “everybody who is anybody.”
Waddy Thompson, incidentally, was Fort Myers’ first telegraph operator (for the International Ocean Telegraph Company). His marriage to Captain F.A. Hendry’s daughter, Laura, was the first wedding performed in Fort Myers.
Between the threat of clubbing little boys and the invitation to a masquerade, was a sort of Christmas-in-Paradise reverie by Editor Frank Stout.
Sl-ither-ither-ither-ither-ither-thump. December, 1887.
Though a full column has not yet been devoted to the holiday, Christmas has at least gained its own heading. For Christmas week, we have a jousting tournament (believe it or not), a band concert, another masquerade and a picnic for the kids, which includes fireworks on the river.
The orange grove opposite Captain Hendry’s home, where all the kids in Fort Myers gathered for their picnic, would have been in the area of First Street and Fowler, just a short walk from the library where I now sat before a magic microfilm viewer engrossed in the images of a small-town Christmas 128 years ago. From the smudged, close-set type emerges a breathless and blushing “Queen of Beauty” lowering her head so that her mother can plait her hair with flowers; a young woman sucking a drop of blood from her fingertip as she hurries to stitch the last ribbon onto her masquerade costume; and a mother shooing her totally out-of-control kids out of the kitchen so she can pack their picnic basket for the party in the orange grove opposite Captain Hendry’s house.
It was now early evening in the library and rain was pouring heavily onto the roof of the building. I got up and left the microfilm room to stand before one of the large windows and look out. The few lights along First Street that I could see shimmered in waving sheets of rain.
Sl-ither-ither-ither-ither-ither-thump. December, 1888.
Here is the first mention of Santa Claus, yet only two merchants are advertised. I wonder how many people bought that “beautiful little alarm clock,” and where the clocks are now.
Sl-ithering-ithering-ithering-ithering-thump. After the brief rocking motion, December, 1904, wavers into focus, and Christmas, or rather Santa Claus, is suddenly front page news.
The Fort Myers Press has leapt into the new twentieth century with large headlines and full-blown ads. Thumb-print size sketches are also appearing here and there in illustration of the copy. The Gibson Girl image of upswept hair and leg o’mutton sleeves has replaced the portrayals of women wearing bustles and carrying parasols.
By the 1920s, the mechanized printers are flinging out newsprint filled with wonderfully large imagery and headlines and full pages of advertising for Christmas gifts, urging shoppers to “buy now…do not wait.” Fort Myers is no longer a frontier village but a growing, hustling town of stone and brick with paved streets and automobiles. The population explosion has burst the seams of this formerly quiet little town where, only 38 years before, “everybody” was invited to Waddy Thompson’s masquerade party. Mentions of social events held in connection with the holiday have increased in proportion to a population swelling to well over 10,000 people.
And steadily since then, the newspaper has grown in page count and with more imagery, and even larger holiday headlines, until, by the 1940s, the Fort Myers News-Press (the Press and the Tropical News merged in 1931) is running full pages of ads urging shoppers into the stores.
Christmas as a merchandizing opportunitywas certainly not new; it had just gotten bolder and noisier.
And yet, as late as the 1950s, Christmas for country kids was still very like an 1880s frontier experience.
Fort Myers native Robert Ballard, whose family pioneered Cayo Costa and Pine Island going back to the 1840s, remembers that in the first half of the 20th century “Christmas was always a big gathering of grandparents, aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins. Christmas was either in the yard under a big oak tree or on the creek bank or woods, under a big oak tree. There were no trips to the mall for Christmas shopping. It was done, when money was available, by placing an order with Sears & Roebuck or Montgomery Ward via the Punta Gorda Fish Company Run Boat. But most of the time it was some hard candy and fruit. And, there was no standing rib roast or a big turkey. Dinner was what could be provided from the wildlife and fish of the surrounding islands. Since the barrier islands were so remote, Christmas meant the gathering of most of the island inhabitants on the outer beach because the houses were pretty minimal. It would be a pot luck dinner with family and friends bringing what they had access to for food.”
By contrast, local attorney and historian Bill Grace, the grandson of Dr. William Grace, who, his grandson tells us, “…delivered most of the babies that were born in Fort Myers from the 20s into the late 40s, including myself and my siblings…”, remembers Christmases in town, at his grandparents’ house on First Street:
“It was always a formal occasion. Men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed up in high heels. We had dinner in the dining room and grandmother kept a little bell by her plate to summon the servants.”
It was still raining lightly when I rewound the last spool of microfilm and put it back in storage. I left the building and walked out to the front steps of the library and stood there a moment, gazing down First Street into the doll-like business section of Fort Myers. The empty street and buildings were bathed in the misted, golden glow of the street lights. None of the buildings that I could see were here in the late 1880s, when a steamer arrived with a cargo of dolls and toys watches and you could get “really cheap” a riverfront lot “that in the near future, when Fort Myers becomes a city, will increase in value…”
But little boys still love firecrackers and mothers still run over-excited kids out of the kitchen and we can still say that Christmas without snow and sleigh bells and skates and sleds doesn’t seem like Christmas, but heck, we’ll take Florida sunshine and warmth and the songs of happy birds anytime.