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Christmas 1919: Century-old Columbian headlines trumpet familiar themes

With World War I in the rearview mirror, Clark County’s holiday season 100 years ago reflected a hopeful community that was ready for peace.

Much like the present day, workers were gearing up for the new Census, residents were busy preparing for Christmas and New Years festivities, and editorials pushed the ideas of kindness, unity and love.

But it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. As prohibition grew across the United States, a spate of bootlegged wood alcohol poisonings killed 59 and blinded many others, in what might be considered a parallel to the 2019 vape pen deaths and injuries caused by black market products.

Washington also officially became a dry state and ratified an amendment for national prohibition earlier in 1919, ahead of the full national prohibition that began on January 17, 1920.

“As no further action by the liquor interests of the state is considered possible, it is officially considered that Washington is legally listed with the Secretary of State of the United States at Washington, D.C., among states that have ratified the national prohibition amendment,” a story in the Dec. 19 issue of The Vancouver Columbian noted.

Anti-immigrant wave

Xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment was also on the rise in 1919, much like the present day, with select politicians railing against the dangers of foreigners.

On December 20 U.S. House Rep. Albert Johnson, a Republican from Washington’s 3rd Congressional district and chair of the House Immigration Committee, declared that all foreigners coming into the United States “in the future must come only on probation.”

He also indicated he wanted to prohibit entry by new foreign nationals. “The citizens of the United States are through with being told by alien revolutionists, communists and anarchists who are within our borders by our country and by our grace how to run our government.”

He was not alone in that sentiment.

Another Columbian story on Dec. 30 headlined “Rush of Foreigners Will Not Continue” noted “Heavy immigration, which has taxed the facilities of Ellis Island and delayed unloading of steamships at this port (in New York) is only temporary and presages the great influx of foreigners that will effect [sic] the labor market of the United States in the opinion of immigration authorities. They estimated today that next year’s immigration through New York will be only 300,000, as compared with the previous figures of 800,000 to 1,000,000 annually.”

Teacher pay and shortages were also a problem in 1919 that continues to parallel the problems of today.

One story during the holiday week noted that “the Pacific Northwest is badly in need of teachers. The supply has been short throughout the last year, while the demand has been growing. High salaries in city schools are held responsible for the decline in the number of teachers for rural districts. The same is said to be true of instructors who chose to enter the business world today in preference to remaining teachers. The schools are increasing in number of pupils, and the demand for teachers is becoming a frantic one in this section of the country.”

Gifts and prices

Back in 1919, your holiday feast would have been much less expensive (at least it would if inflation didn’t exist). Sales in The Columbian noted beef ribs at 15 cents a pound, pork leg roast at 30 cents a pound, mutton shoulder at 20 cents a pound and a 5-pound pail of poultry for $1.25.

Gift items were also less, with fancy coats selling for $10-$20, shirts for $2 to $15, umbrellas from $1.50 to $10, ties for 75 cents to $5, and Prince Albert Tobacco for $1.10 a pound.

Newspaper costs

Newspapers in 1919, unlike now, were thriving, with subscription rates growing nationally and in Clark County. But the industry also faced a newsprint paper shortage because of that popularity.

“The newspapers of the United States are at the present time consuming more paper than the mills are able to produce, and similar conditions are reported in many of the European countries.”

The materials problem led to rising costs, causing some smaller publications to close.

A Dec. 23 story also noted that lumber prices were soaring in the Pacific Northwest because Douglas fir trees and other wood types were being gobbled up by Eastern builders.

A booze warning

A Dec. 22 story, titled, “Police Warned to Watch out for ‘Auto Cocktails’,” warned that some residents were finding other dangerous ways to get their hands on a little Christmas cheer. According to the story:

“The ‘auto cocktail’ is the latest. Major Pullman, superintendent of police, has warned dealers in auto supplies to exercise caution in the sale of denatured alcohol, supposedly used to prevent the freezing of auto-mobile radiators. The police have found the alcohol as being used to put a little ‘kick’ in harmless beverages.”

Christmas, 1919 style

Christmas that year featured a spate of social programs and Christmas Eve and Day services at a host of local churches.

The Salvation Army Christmas program on Christmas night was open to everyone — with singing, hymns, candy and snacks. The event was attended by more than 500 people, including 250 children. Christmas dinners were given to 150 needy people in the city, “and even prisoners in the jail were remembered.”

The charity paid for the gifts by raising money singing Christmas Carols on the street.

The School for the Blind held a Christmas Eve party concert for local residents, and the School for the Deaf unveiled a large Christmas tree with presents for students.

In Camas, the community Christmas event was helped along by local students.

“Six hundred stockings are being made by the science class of the high school under the direction of Miss Self, which will be filled with candies, fruits and nuts by the ladies of the Civic club,” a Christmas Eve story read. The stockings were given out to local children.


Christmas marriages, usually a popular phenomenon, were on the decline in 1919. A story that week read:

“Despite all precedent, Christmas marriages in Vancouver are few. In fact, the Christmas rush failed to materialize at the auditor’s office, although it is admitted that there is still a chance for a ‘big’ day tomorrow. Six couples yesterday failed to secure their licenses, this being an unusually high number. Some had no witnesses, one had not been divorced for six months, and in two cases, the prospective bridegroom failed to bring along the bride.”

On Dec. 31, the paper listed the Clark County marriage roundup: It noted that June was generally the best marriage month in Clark County. In 1919, there were: 168 marriages in January, 175 in February, 201 in March, 216 in April, 211 in May, 292 in June, 256 in July, 230 in August, 262 in September, 246 in October, 244 in November and 252 in December.

What’s in a name?

Clement Scott, head of the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce at the time, noted that many Vancouver residents often accidentally had their mail shipped to Vancouver, B.C., and that he was sick of it.

In a post-Christmas story he said: “Why not change the name of Vancouver, Washington? There is no reason I know of, except tradition, for retaining the name, and tradition is seldom allowed to stand in the way when business suffers. I don’t care what the town is renamed, but I believe Vancouver, as a name, has outlived its usefulness.”

Impacts of the war

Vancouver soldier Jack Emil Arvidson, age 27, died Dec. 21 at the Letterman hospital at San Francisco from complications after being gassed in France in World War I.

“He died as a result of being gassed while in action with his regiment, the 161st Infantry, while in action in France. A lingering illness resulted, and after being in various hospitals in Germany and France, he was sent to America. He spent two years overseas, enlisting in October 1917. He was awarded the victory medal and other decorations for his action in France. He participated in three major actions,” a story noted.


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