Friday, January 18, 2013

Christmas in Perrysburg, 1880

[The Champney House, 302 E. Second Street, Perrysburg, Ohio]

[From Bend of the River, December 2012]

Christmas has taken some time to emerge into the gigantic holiday it is today. A religious holiday at first (and still for many of us), it took some clever marketing in the late nineteenth century to rebrand the holiday into a commercial hurricane.

One of those marketers was A. R. Champney (1831-1908). Champney was a pharmacist in Perrysburg in the last half of the 19th century. He was also, according to advertisements preserved in the Perrysburg Journal in December of 1880, a “special agent” of Santa Claus. How did Champney, who lived a very ordinary merchant’s life beside the Maumee River 130 years ago, understand that Christmas could mean sales?

A. R. Champney had plenty of excitement as a boy. Details are sketchy, but his 1908 obituary declared:

When a boy he went on the [Great] lakes and worked his way up until he became Master and many years sailed the great inland seas, his staunch little schooner making many trips to the Perrysburg dock.

He married a Toledo girl, Frances J. Hancock, in 1859. He continued as a mariner until 1865 or 1866, when he settled in Perrysburg an “engaged in the drug business.”

The Champney Drug Store was located 114 Louisiana Avenue. Originally called Inscho & Champney, Champney bought out his partner and operated the store independently until 1900, when he sold it to his son Charles. By that time, the “Champney Block” housed the drugstore, a dentist’s office, a cigar maker, a barber shop, and a “confectionary.” In 1880, Champney installed the first telephone line in Perrysburg, connecting his home and his business. Champney lived long enough to witness the building burn down in 1904.

Like modern drugstores, A. R. Champney sold a variety of goods and services. This allowed him to attract Christmas shoppers at a time when malls were in the far distance. His 1880 Christmas advertisements show that he sold “toys and holiday goods, hobby horses, wagons, carts, sleds” and a number of other items suitable for gift-giving.

Did Champney use Christmas decorations to draw in more customers? This was before the days of recorded Christmas carols, robotic Santas, and credit cards. But with a little imagination we can see and smell A. R. Champney’s dusty store, smelling of chalky medicines, Christmas candy, and displaying such wonders as rocking horses and sleds that no doubt were used on the frozen Maumee in front of the Fort Meigs precipice. Don’t be afraid of old Mr. Champney, mothers would whisper to children grown bug-eyed at the sight of the toys; he is a special agent of Santa Claus.

[Material in this essay came, in part, from Perrysburg Revisited by Ardath Danford (Perrysburg, 1992). The quote from Mr. Champney’s obituary came from the Perrysburg Journal of March 25, 1908.]

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