Friday, 11 December 2015

Grahamstown Gazette: the Christmas edition

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the December edition.

From The Treasury:

The excitement in the air was palpable. Mr. Palmer’s Christmas window display was not so much an advertisement for his shop as an annual Grahamstown event in its own right. Surpassing even the impressive efforts of the previous year, the window display on Christmas Eve 1896 was called ‘a genuine work of art’ by the Thames Star, festooned with an impressive array of holly and Christmas decorations. Children scrambled to press their noses against the glass, gazing up at the magnificent Father Christmas statue surrounded by candy rocks and dancing figurines. The Palmer’s shop window was certainly worth waiting all year for.

Palmer’s Confectionery was a stalwart of Grahamstown’s business district for almost a century. Opened in 1871, the business stayed in the family for decades and was famous for its hand-made sweets. Charles Palmer took great pride in manufacturing his own sweets and cordials on the Grahamstown premises, and was known throughout the country for high quality and affordable prices. The ever-enterprising Mr. Palmer was the first person to sell ice cream in Thames, from 1887, and the only Thames supplier of ice for refrigeration for a number of years. 

The annual Christmas window display was one which drew crowds of spectators every year. The Thames Star reveals Mr. Palmer thought his Christmas display was ‘the chief attraction of Pollen Street’ as early as 1886, when the Long Depression of the 1880s possibly forced the business-owners of the town to think a little more creatively about selling their wares. Mr. Palmer knew his customers well, offering his goods ‘at much under the usual rate’ and ‘the best of all beverages during the present Hot Weather,’ as part of his Christmas promotion. 

The display itself was different every year, although Father Christmas was a constant. Clockwork models also featured heavily. Model soldier, electric windmills, and flags were popular additions over the years, although the real stars were the candies themselves. Lolly whistles and coloured lolly animals were particularly special treats. Manufacturing by hand meant the Palmers had control over the ‘new and startling’ designs of their sweets, and each year’s selection was bigger and better than the one before. By 1901, Mr. Palmer’s advertisements went so far as to promise ‘a free carnival for the little ones’ as well as the usual Christmas attractions. The scale of the carnival itself is not revealed.

These days, what’s left of Mr. Palmer’s famous Christmas displays can be found at Thames Historical Museum.  In the museum’s streetscape of some of Grahamstown’s most memorable shops stands someone, still surrounded by sweets, who the enthralled crowd of children from 1896 would still recognise – Father Christmas, still with his original holly leaves and heavy winter coat.

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