By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Irvington, Pocantico Hills, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown. Where did folks buy holiday presents for children in the days of my early youth and before? In an attempt to begin to answer that question, I asked a contemporary who had grown up in a large family in the neighborhood of Philipse Manor in Sleepy Hollow. His reply, “What did I get for Christmas when I was a kid? Nothing.” That response made me feel pretty miserable; I can only imagine how he felt at the time. Today, regardless of how we feel about it, I think most of us accept prodigal holiday giving as the norm, but there was a time when any children’s gifts were not to be taken for granted, or, if they were given, it was on a much smaller scale.
It’s hard to remember where kids’ gifts were purchased locally when you are the actual kid in question. I don’t remember any toy stores that were merely toy stores per se. And none of the contemporaries I spoke to could remember dedicated local toy stores of the 1950s either. So I started digging through the pages of the extinct Tarrytown Daily News and some answers began to surface. Woolworth’s was an old standby, starting out at 49 Orchard Street, in 1913, it moved up to Broadway (opposite the Tarrytown Post Office) and lasted until 1993. My older sister, Liz, remembers shopping there as a girl in the 1960s, buying such items as cheap jewelry, yoyos, crayons & coloring books, paper dolls, and plastic models and craft supplies. Slightly younger old timers remember the Big Top on Broadway.
In my earliest days, when my family home was on Crest Drive, I remember children’s gifts of ant-farms, flying saucer chick incubators, pseudo-science kits, “Dinkies”, board games, baseball cards, picture books, toy trains, a toy drum, toy guns, and dolls—dolls—dolls for my sisters. But that was already the 1950s. What about seventy-five years ago—1940, where did people shop for children’s gifts around here? The ghost of Christmas past is preoccupied with the Scrooges of the world, so let’s turn to the, Tarrytown Daily News, the newspaper of record.
November 30, 1940, a full page ad with a bird’s-eye photo of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow:
“A Vast Shopping Center! Merchants are alert to the needs of this 26,000 population shopping area, with huge stocks… The largest and most varied assortment ever shown in this section of the Hudson Valley. Shopping here will give you added Yuletide pleasures. [Who wrote this stuff?] You’ll enjoy the color of the Hospitality—the friendly ‘Hello Mrs. Jones—this store is your store—here to satisfy your every desire.'” I guess the writer assumed that Mrs. Jones’ “desires” had their limits. The ad also congratulated “4500 Tarrytowners who saved $176,000 in the local Christmas Club plans.” (Business Life of the Tarrytowns sponsored the announcement.)
Later, on December 12th, another full-page ad sponsored by local merchants and businesses admonished, “If you live in the Tarrytowns, spend in the Tarrytowns.” Among the sponsors—the Music Hall Theater, F. R. Pierson Florists, Cooney Brothers, Washington Dairy, Anchor Motors, and, yes, Bill’s Diner (on Valley Street). This ad, I think, expresses more a wish than a fact. The wish that the increasingly mobile consumer population of so called “Sleepy Hollow Country” will want to do their holiday spending in their home community rather than take to the roads. It was a well-timed appeal, for the retail battle had not yet been truly joined. Christmas shoppers still shopped for necessities or near necessities close to home, and although many middle class residents had recently joined the ranks of car owners, they were not yet inclined to take their holiday shopping to distant centers.
In December 1940, there was a Christmas Bazaar at Saint Mark’s Church in Tarrytown, but no indication of what was sold there. At Cartoon’s Furniture Store on Orchard Street, one could buy a Zenith Ten-tube Radio marked down to $59.95 or a complete sewing kit for $1.59. The only significant White Plains advertiser who appeared to be interloping in the pages of the Tarrytown Daily News was Sears, Roebuck & Co. on East Post Road, offering inexpensive dolls for 98 cents or a Lionel train set for $10.98, as well as toy cars, play kitchens, and dolly furniture.
Locally, in those days, hardware stores were—at least seasonally—set up to answer a demand for children’s items. Irvington Hardware at 81 Main Street, Irvington is the only local hardware store still in its original location from that time, and it still sells children’s sleds.
In 1940, Ross Hardware at 32-34 Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow advertised “Gifts for Everyone! Toys for brother and sister”. Among the items they offered were bikes, coaster wagons, pinball games, sleds, shoe skates, steel scooters, dolly tea sets, ping pong sets, toy trucks and fire engines. Another hardware store, Cramer and McCutchen & Co., at Orchard Street and Main was selling Lionel trains, Northland skis, hockey skates and Flexible Flyer sleds in addition to the normal trade in hardware, plumbing supplies, appliances, washers, and sporting goods. A hockey stick cost 75 cents to a dollar and tree ornaments sold for as little as two for 5 cents.
Pharmacies were in on holiday gift giving too. Russell and Lawrie at Broadway and Main offered a giant Santa ice cream form for $1.50. Gift boxes of candy could be had at Graber’s on Broadway, opposite Hamilton Place.
That was the 1940s; by the 1950s, something hit the community that had been missing in 1940. It was called TELEVISION. TV sets seemed to be in stores everywhere, doing whatever they could to get into people’s houses. Kugel’s, at 45 Main Street in Tarrytown, claimed to be Westchester’s first Philco TV dealer. Denman Radio Co. at 106 N. Broadway was selling Sylvanias. Charles Cohen at 135 Main Street had Olympic TVs and called for residents to make this a “TV Christmas.” Cramer & McCutchen was still in business and, in 1950, had added Dumont televisions to its inventory.
Our 1950 snap shot must include Tarrytown Home and Toyland, aka Firestone Tires at 5 South Broadway. I personally remember this place from the late 50s as a kind of mecca for seekers of toys. My sister Liz and I also remember that the place was redolent with the smell of tires. A marshal arts studio now occupies the space, with an entrance on Main Street. In 1950, they advertised a toy gas station, a toy rifle, a model Maxwell Car, a toy PIE Truck (Pacific Inter-mountain Express), Tinker Toys, toy train accessories, and a six-unit 027-gauge Lionel Diesel Freight for a sobering $47.50. Then you might have walked across to Reynolds Hardware (run by Seymour Tell) at 21 Main Street, where Santa was visiting. There you could shop for a table radio ($19.95), sled ($4.95), panda bear ($2.29), trains ($14.95 & up), #6 Erector set ($9.95), or a toy piano ($2.98). Greenbaum’s at 42-44 Orchard Street also had bikes and sleds. I also remember the Georgie Porgie Shop at 35 North Broadway, in the space that was more recently Murray Frank’s Stationary and Gift Store. Later, my mother brought me there for clothes, and in 1950 the Georgie Porgie Shop was advertising Holgate toys and Donald Duck slippers. Tappan Pharmacy at 98 North Broadway had candy and film for holiday photos.
As the season gained momentum that year, the Music Hall made a liberal offer to local children… On Saturday, December 23rd at 9 AM, all children under sixteen were invited to a free Christmas movie show and party. There would be twenty Flexible Flyers and four beautiful dolls to be given away… and chocolate candy for all! This offer was sponsored by the Liberty Party with the cooperation of Bob Goldblatt, the Music Hall’s owner.
Ten years later, in 1960, it appeared that perhaps the television set had been the retail “Trojan Horse” in the 1950 offerings – as least as far as local merchants were concerned. The out-of-town department stores seemed to take over the December display ads in the Daily News, possibly making advertising space too pricey for most of the local merchants. The kids had been watching those TV sets, and that new box in the living room had been telling them what they wanted for the holidays and where to get it. Instead of a walk to town, it would require a ride to the department stores in White Plains. Macys, E. J. Korvettes, S. Klein, and Alexander’s seemed to have muscled out the likes of Ross Hardware in newsprint. Korvettes asked us to “Imagine—an American-made transistor radio for only $9.88.” If you didn’t care to travel all the way to White Plains, there was now a sizeable department store in Elmsford called Masters – part of a chain.
Firestone got the idea. In 1960 it had become one in a chain of “Tri-State Outlets” offering a number of “TV Specials”, including Mister Machine and Patti-Play Pal (toy manufacturers had come up with the brilliant idea of giving dolls names). Of course, even Tri-State is now history. The standout survivor in Tarrytown retail is Goldberg Hardware, then at 29 Orchard Street, who in the 1960 holiday season took out a small ad offering sleds. It may be that the store’s staying power came in some measure from sticking to its core business.
Woolworth’s at 45 North Broadway battled back with offers of $2.45-parakeets, 49 cent-goldfish bowls with two free goldfish, and 25-cent Peter Pan 45RPM records, but the store’s days appeared to have been numbered. The demolition of Orchard Street in the 1970s was a symbolic small-retail death-knell. But reports of local retail’s demise seemed to be exaggerated. Showing little promise in the seventies and eighties, retail has come plodding back in a new incarnation over the past two decades—RESTAURANTS. It may be time to raise again the old banner, “If you live local—spend local!”
©2010-2016 Henry John Steiner
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