Inside JCPRD: Christmas gifts from the Fifties

The 1948 catalog from Kansas City department store Emery, Bird, Thayer & Company. On the back cover the store sent its best wishes and a reminder to visit “Toy Town” on the fifth floor. Johnson County Museum collection.

By the Johnson County Museum

Some of the traditions centered around gift giving at Christmas come from the 1950s. With the American victory in World War II, the 1950s saw a major increase in prosperity and consumption. The Christmas shopping season took on a new importance for Americans, and advertising in newspapers and magazines increased along with it. The growing popularity of television contributed, especially in influencing gifts for children. Prosperity and advertising and gift buying culminated in the image of a perfectly wrapped gift for a loved one. What were popular gifts in the 1950s? Read on to find out!

Christmas morning (perhaps quite early) in 1953 at the Girsch house in De Soto. A train set and farm are visible. Note the Christmas cards up the moulding. JoCoHistory: https://jocohistory.org/digital/collection/jcm/id/3594/rec/4

Gifts for Kids

The toy industry used television to market products to children (and to their parents via lists made for Santa). A whole genre of TV toys was created to imitate the plots and characters from prime time shows for children. In the early 1950s, many of these took the form of games featuring sci-fi and cowboy heroes. The Davy Crockett movie (1955) and subsequent television show prompted a rage for coonskin caps, flintlock rifles, and powder horns. Macy’s department store featured cowboy Roy Rogers watches, pajamas, tents, and miniature models of his jeep, Nellybelle. The Lionel electric train emerged as the gift of choice for boys, one equally enjoyed by father and son. Chemistry sets, marbles, and baseball equipment were also popular gifts. [Image 1 train 1953; Image 2 1956 xmas morn]

Gender roles were tightly defined in the 1950s. Gifts for young girls encouraged her feminine identity and cultural expectations for adult women. The “Little Homemaker Pastry Set” included an eggbeater, a juicer, bowls, spoons, and a rolling pin. The “Glamour Girl Beauty Kit” came with a comb, brush, mirror, cosmetic jar, and dressing tray. A wide variety of dolls and doll accessories were big sellers. Boys and girls both wished for bicycles, Slinkies, Play-Doh, View-Masters, hula hoops, and paint-by-number kits.

Gifts for Him

There was a do-it-yourself mania in the 1950s, and many popular gifts for men fed that craze. Do-it-yourself kits included a car-pack, Black & Decker Saw Drill & Sander Kit packs, fiberglass hammers, and wood carving knives. The automobile was an obsession, and gifts for working on the car, as well as tools for the workbench, were popular. The backyard was also becoming important in American culture, so yard equipment, including outdoor leisure equipment and grilling supplies, made practical gifts. For sporty men, golf clubs and accessories, as well as bowling balls and shoes, were great gift ideas.

Nannette Rod on Christmas morning in 1956. Note the cowgirl outfit.

Gifts for Her

The gendered gifts that one might give to their daughter were echoed in the gifts for one’s wife or mother. Cosmetics, jewelry, and clothing were common gifts for women in the 1950s, as they are now. Atomizers, gold lipstick tubes with jeweled tops, cosmetic cases, bubble bath in apothecary jars, purse-size perfume containers, and combs in needlepoint cases appeared in newspaper and magazine articles. For the wealthier families, diamond watches, silver candelabras, or even household appliances were encouraged.

“Why not make it an electric Christmas?”

Following WWII, electricity and all of its possibilities took on new significance in American culture. More Americans than ever had electricity and homes with televisions, radios, and electric appliances.

The December 1955 issue of Family Circle magazine contained a two-page advertisement titled “why not make this an electric Christmas?” It featured small appliances like blenders, deep-fat fryers, automatic coffee percolators, heater fans, and portable sewing machines. General Electric used full-page color ads to promote such products as its steam and dry iron, automatic toaster, triple-whip mixer, and automatic grill and waffle maker. An advertisement for Kitchen Aid dishwashers advised male readers to “Give her a Merry Christmas and yourself a Happy New Year.”

It’s all in the Wrap

Whatever one chose to give as a gift in the 1950s, the wrapping was an important component. Department stores made boxes, bags, and gift wrap for the holidays. But equal to the taste for expensive, store-wrapped packages was the desire to receive one prepared by the happy family wrapping gifts together at home.

Magazine articles, manuals, and courses offered guidance for do-it-yourself wrapping, complete with instructions for making boxes from sheets of cardboard. Christmas preparations were, overall, an opportunity for creative expression, especially for children. In her 1950 manual, The Art of Wrapping Gifts, Drucella Lowrie warned, however, that “A sloppily wrapped package, or one too gaudy or too skimpy, indicates poor taste, indifference, or lack of skill—and inevitably detracts from the pleasure intended.”

The 1950s All-Electric House inside the Johnson County Museum will be decorated for Christmas through Jan. 9. Learn more about gift giving over the years on Saturday, Dec. 12 in front of the All-Electric House where a museum team member will be sharing highlights from the collection. Inside of the All-Electric House watch a 1949 toy train circle around a silver tree. On Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. join the Johnson County Museum in welcoming Hallmark Cards Archivist Samantha Bradbeer as she talks about the history of card-giving and shows some historic examples from the Hallmark archives. Attendees must register to receive program link the day of the program. Lastly, learn about 1950s holiday parties in our next edition of The Retro Housewife’s Guide to… Holiday Cocktail Parties! This free virtual program will take place on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 6 pm. Attendees must register to receive program link.

 Looking for special gifts? Check out the museum store! We have local, historical, and toy gift options. JCRPD gift cards and museum memberships make great stocking stuffers! Gift shop open Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.