Christmas Shopping– 1934 Version
Oh, how Mabel hated those dolls! In January, as she and her fellow salesgirls packed the unsold ones away, the staff was so glad to see the end of them.
She remembered the day they unpacked the new Shirley Temple dolls. Clerks from other departments all stopped to look, all the ladies ooo-ing & aww-ing over how cute they were. And the variety of outfits they came with! Toy department workers joked about buying one for themselves and playing with it on the sly. Some of the ladies were saving their money to buy one for a daughter or niece.
By the end of November miniature Shirley Temples were lined up in neat rows on the toy shelves, waiting for Christmas gift-buyers. They looked so appealing, but were pricey for the times; Mabel knew folks on Relief would never be able to afford one. She never dreamed she’d see this sad reality played out day after day for weeks.
Child actress Shirley Temple came along in the 1930?s, in the midst of the Great Depression. She was an instant hit with her sweet voice, big hazel eyes and bouncing golden ringlets; reviewers were saying she symbolized hope to Depression-weary people. She looked like “the good old days”: she wasn’t pale; her cheeks weren’t hollow; her arms and legs weren’t just sticks. She had the spunk to sing and tap dance her way into people’s hearts.
Someone in Hollywood decided a good way to market their child star was to put out replica dolls in time for Christmas sales. And Eaton’s, a big Canadian department store where Mabel worked, stocked these dolls just like a lot of others. Thus began a month of torture for the salesgirls who worked there.
Little girls started coming as soon as the staff put the dolls on display. All children, rich or poor, made the rounds of the huge Eaton’s toy display just to ogle, but the little girls would wander back to the doll shelves. there they’d stand and stare – sometimes for an hour – at those beautiful dolls.
Mabel wondered if every girl in the city was coming in. Some of them really tore at your heart, too. She’d see a little waif straggle by in a much-patched coat, wearing rubbers borrowed from someone they actually fitted. The next day some other girl – probably a sister or a cousin – would be standing there in that same shabby coat, wearing those same floppy rubbers. Relief payments covered food and housing, but recipients were given nothing for “extras” like clothing. A lot of these girls weren’t in school because they hadn’t shoes or clothes of their own fit to wear. But they could still dream.
Maybe some of them are Maria’s sisters, she thought sadly. How many of these girls are the daughters of immigrants, surviving on whatever they can scrounge?
Mabel and Maria became school friends soon after Maria’s family arrived in Winnipeg. Maria’s father had accepted a job in the city back in the early ‘20s when city was welcoming immigrants. The economy was booming and Canada needed more workers, so the Canadian government had streamlined the immigration process for many Europeans.
Maria’s father had worked hard to get ahead. They were saving to buy a house when the Stock Market crashed. When jobs started dying up immigrants were the first laid off and he got the axe, too. Then when those same immigrants applied for relief, they were handed a form to sign…
“I’m sure glad my brother Joe went with him,” Maria told her later. “Dad can’t read English well enough to understand it all. He didn’t know he’d be agreeing to have us all sent back to Poland. We don’t want to go back! This is our home now.
“He refused to sign, but then he was told if he didn’t, he couldn’t get any Relief. Dad came home and just sat down and cried. Joe said they hadn’t had food in the house for two days before Dad was desperate enough to apply – and then he was turned down!”
Maria was married by then; she and her husband were on Relief themselves and couldn’t help much. But her Canadian-born father-in-law – bless his heart– faced the ridicule of his neighbors and allowed her family to live in his basement rent-free. Still, Mabel wondered how a family could survive on nothing.
By the first week in December every time Mabel walked down that aisle she saw the wistful eyes of a dozen little girls looking up at her. Girls who badly needed food but dreamed instead of a beautiful doll for Christmas. To see those thin little girls standing in front of the display day after day, with eyes so full of longing – dreaming an impossible dream – finally broke her heart.
One day she snapped. She managed to hold on long enough to make it to the staff room before she burst into tears. “ I can’t stand it!” she shrieked. “I just can’t do this anymore. Get rid of those dolls – every last one! I can’t bear to see them one more day.”
Pearl, one of the other sales girls calmed her down. “Most of us feel that way. But Christmas will soon be past; try and hang on just two more weeks.”
Vera was in the staff room, too. “I may have a break-down, too,” she told them. “I’m so tempted…one of these days I’m just going to start grabbing dolls off the shelves and handing them out to every little ragamuffin I see. When the police come and arrest me, I’ll plead insanity.”
“Oh, I’d love to see that,” Pearl said with a laugh. “But you need your job. We all need our jobs to make it through these times. Maybe next year things will start to look up.”
“Yeah, maybe next Christmas there’ll be jobs for dads and presents for children again,” Vera replied, without enthusiasm.
How much longer could this Depression last?
I’ve invented Mabel and her thoughts, but the setting was very real. According to one Eaton’s sales girl, they had all they could handle watching those starving girls wander in every day and just stare at those dolls. She’s the “Vera” in this tale.
I sis a search for when Shirley Temple dolls first came on the market; they seem to have made their appearance for the 1934 Christmas season. Whether they were introduced in western Canada that Christmas or the next I’m not sure.
To our national shame, when things got tough in Canada immigrants with odd-sounding names or strange accents were usually denied Relief. Many were whisked away on trains to Halifax, put on boats and shipped back with no legalities, not even allowed a phone call.
As to Maria’s father-in-law, I’ll quote one Manitoba politician of the time:
“When those foreigners from across the tracks apply for Relief, we just show them a blank application for voluntary deportation. Believe me, they don’t come back. It’s simple, but it has saved the city a lot of money.”
Word Press Daily prompt: Tempted