Christmas Eve 1874 in Manhattan’s Little Germany

A little while ago, I made the discovery that the family of one of my great, great-grandmothers lived for a time in a New York City neighborhood that was then known as Little Germany. The family of Sophia Precht (aka Sophia P. von Spiegel) lived, from the mid to late 19th century, in a neighborhood found within the East Village of the New York City borough of Manhattan. It was known in German as Kleindeutschland and Deutschländle and called Dutchtown by contemporary non-Germans. The area today is known as Alphabet City whose name comes from avenues A, B, C and D – the only avenues in Manhattan to have single letter names.

I was curious to see what contemporary 19th-century newspapers would say about this neighborhood and in my research, I came across an article published in the New York Herald on December 25, 1874. Reporters from the newspaper went out and about the neighborhoods of the city the night before. Below is what was written about a visit to Little Germany by one of the reporters on that Christmas Eve nearly 150 years ago. Caution: In typical bourgeois fashion the article reeks with a tone of WASP-ish snarkieness towards recent immigrants to America. Gringos! Am I right?

Christmas Eve: seeing Christmas in the city – Little Germany by candlelight

Away from the wide, thronged sidewalks, the crowded and costly shops where the people from the uptown streets and high toned avenues are spending money like water for Christmas gifts this Christmas Eve, away with us to “Little Germany” on the east side of town, where dimes count as dollars, and where, if anywhere, we can find Santa Claus “at home.”

What is that blazing and flashing down the street? See those flames swaying in the air, those bright colors; it looks like a gigantic Christmas tree reaching to the very tops of the houses with its festive burden and flashing lights; but surely it cannot be. Let us come near. Yes! We are right. It is only a butcher’s sign, but he gives notice of his holiday wares in right jolly fashion. Pine branches are fastened to the naked arms of the tree; rabbits, poultry, links of gilded sausage and torches are hung all over it and a ladder reaches to the lower limbs by which the boy will climb to the very top and bring you any bit of game you may fancy. Yes, it is only a shop in the air, but it is a Christmas tree for all that and makes the whole neighborhood bright and cheery.

Smaller trees gladden nearly every corner and eager children press around the open stands and look with blissful eyes at the tin soldiers and the figures of the Christ-child done in candy. German is spoken on every hand and all the toys and fancy articles are imported directly from the “Vaterland.” Wreaths of artificial flowers, such as are worn at German picnics, walnuts covered with gold paper, bears that swallow great slices of meat without as much as a single chews, little pianos with only four keys, men made of prunes, tender papas done in plaster, carrying obstreperous children in their arms, and hundreds of other things that are thoroughly characteristic of the simple-headedness of the people who make them.

The pastry cooks shops are in it inexhaustible source of wonder to the uninitiated American. There are gingerbread “girls of the period,” with unmistakable panaters [?], and their hair done up in immense waterfalls, covered with nets made by threads of icing, their faces adorned with the roundest and most unexpressive features, and there are “vulgar little boys”, made of the same materials, with their naughty thumbs placed against their gingerbread noses, and, oh! more enchanting than all are gingerbread generals, in full uniform, mounted on gingerbread horses, whose trapping and manes are made of the whitest and shiniest of icing.

Lying temptingly on the counters are diamond shaped cakes that crack like shells when you bite into them, but which are sweeter than the sweetest nuts to taste. And there are squares of apple cakes, and little German girls with long plaits of light hair hanging down their backs, parrying the apples with a machine of Yankee invention, and there are small boys, not overly clean, scraping coconuts for pies and cakes. The good natured Germans laugh when we buy half a dozen “girls of the period” to put in our sister’s and our cousin’s stockings, and a “vulgar little boy” each for Bob and Joe.

Not the least interesting of these shops are the crockery dealers. What pretty, grotesque, useful and useless things they display. We pass hastily from the common showy china figures of cancan dancers, and the like, and turn to the shelves where the stoneware is kept. Such beautiful jugs of gray stone of decorated with graceful designs in dark blue and with substantial pewter covers to keep in the heat. There is a perfect wilderness of beer mugs; glass, china, stone, highly colored, simply colored and perfectly plain and bushels of little jugs and bowls, small enough for a doll and unique enough to set an artist frantic.

Leaving the orderly crowds that throng the streets of “Little Germany” we wandered down toward a West side market. What a change from the comparative quiet of the German quarter…

“Girl of the period” is an apparent reference an 1868 essay by E. Lynn Linton in which the author provided the following definition:

“The Girl of the Period is a creature who dyes her hair and paints her face, as the first articles of her personal religion–a creature whose sole idea of life is fun; whose sole aim is unbounded luxury; and whose dress is the chief object of such thought and intellect as she possesses. Her main endeavour is to outvie her neighbours in the extravagance of fashion. No matter if, in the time of crinolines, she sacrifices decency…”

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