Christmas Eve 1918: Doughboys, Toys, and Joy to the World

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house, . . .”

people were reading the Star-Telegram of December 24, 1918:

 The front page.

“Panther Artillery Ordered Home” was the big news of Christmas Eve a century ago. Even though an armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918, fighting in World War I had continued. (The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed until June 28, 1919.) But the front page banner was the best Christmas gift of all for many: The war was almost over “over there,” and the Panther Division artillery brigade had been given orders to return to Camp Bowie. The doughboys would not be home for the holidays but perhaps for Valentine’s Day: The Star-Telegram wrote that the men would be home “about Feb. 15.”

But not every soldier was coming home. Soldiers continued to die on the battlefield and in the hospital bed. Rotan Brockman of Fort Worth died of disease contracted in France.

Major retailers wished readers “merry Christmas” in ads:

Haltom’s was still located in the Fort Worth Club Building at Main and 6th streets.

Meacham’s was founded by Henry Clay Meacham, who would become mayor. (In 1926 First Baptist Church preacher J. Frank Norris would criticize Mayor Meacham. Dexter Elliott Chipps, a friend of Meacham, would confront Norris in the preacher’s office and demand that Norris stop criticizing Meacham. Norris would draw a pistol from a drawer and shoot Chipps dead. Norris would be acquitted.)

Monnig’s.

The Fair.

Sanger’s.

Stripling’s.

Washer Brothers.

Also wishing readers “a very merry Xmas” was your friendly local undertaker. Note that George L. Gause’s undertaking parlor was still located on West Weatherford Street. He had not yet moved his home and business to the Quality Hill mansion of Neil Anderson.

Death takes a holiday (sorta): Fort Worth’s cemetery associations announced that for the first time in ten years employees would not work on Christmas Day. Burials would be delayed by a day. The Mount Olivet superintendent said his employees had not had a day off in a year.

The flu did not take a holiday in 1918. The 1918 influenza pandemic was one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population) became infected with the virus, “and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. The pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women.”

Railroads were still a major industry and provided jobs for thousands both directly and indirectly, especially in a railroad hub such as Fort Worth. Out on the Cleburne Pike (McCart Street today) the short-lived Texas Motor Car Association also was hiring.

The Star-Telegram’s Goodfellows Fund had been helping the less fortunate at Christmas since 1912.

In his spare time R. E. Armstrong made fifty-six doll tables that were distributed by Goodfellows volunteers or given to girls at the Tarrant County Orphans Home.

And children at the Masonic Home and Volunteers of America emergency home were not forgotten.

Personnel at Camp Bowie were anticipating a big dinner to celebrate what for many would be “their last Christmas in the Army.”

The Majestic Theater offered “big time vaudeville.”

And on Christmas Day readers could see Douglas Fairbanks in the silent film Arizona.

In 1918 if you were looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for the wildcatter in your life, an oil field supply company was selling 150,000 feet of oil line. The oil field supply company’s representative was staying at the Westbrook Hotel, which had become a favorite of oilmen since William Knox Gordon’s strike at Ranger fourteen months earlier.

This is the first stanza of a poem by syndicated poet Edgar A. Guest that was printed on the editorial page.

“Jingle bells, single belles, single all the way”: Some folks just wanted Santa to leave them a divorce decree under the tree. It appears that in all five cases, the wife filed against the husband.

When America went to war in 1917 and built domestic military installations such as Camp Bowie and Camp Taliaferro, authorities began trying to insulate soldiers from local vice (prostitution and alcohol). In April 1918 the Texas legislature had passed a law that prohibited the sale of alcohol within a ten-mile radius of a military installation. F. E. Payne was accused of spreading Christmas spirit of the wrong sort.

In addition to the banner headline on page 1, there were indications—small but meaningful—that “peace on earth, good will to men” was at hand: Restrictions on the movement of “unnaturalized Germans” in Tarrant County were being lifted. Germans would be allowed to visit Camp Bowie, Camp Taliaferro, Lake Worth, the packing houses, the flour mills.

In February 1918 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt had asked Americans to lend binoculars, telescopes, and spyglasses to the Navy “to be used in spying out the lurking sub.”

Finally, on Christmas Eve 1918—one hundred years ago today—this brief was buried on page 11 of a twelve-page edition: The Navy announced that it would soon return those borrowed optical instruments.

Peace was in sight.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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