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News / Clark County News

Christmas past: The holidays in 1917 were dominated by war

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: December 24, 2017, 6:02am

War news, as would be expected, dominated the front pages of the Vancouver Daily Columbian in December 1917.

A Christmas Day story at the bottom of the front page observed that for the first time in many years, the sons of the United States are at war, training stateside or serving in France, “and guarding the ocean range from submarines. Today also is the fourth Christmas (at war) for the belligerents of Europe.”

Still, there was room for stories of peace and love.

Particularly love.

And the newspaper helped play Cupid, with a piece on Dec. 22, 1917, urging bachelors to pop the question.

“If you are not married and intend to do so Monday, there is ample time to propose this evening. So secure your license tomorrow,” an unnamed Columbian reporter wrote.

“If you carry out these instructions, you will be doing a patriotic act. Everything points to happiness,” and even the holiday decor is aiding the cause, since “mistletoe is to be seen in abundance.”

The story must have been persuasive. On Dec. 24, the county auditor issued a record-breaking 31 marriage licenses.

What was the link between proposals and patriotism? Local judges and clergymen who performed the wedding ceremonies pledged to donate their fees to the Red Cross.

The Columbian’s coverage a century ago touched on the typical aspects of the Christmas season, including shopping: “It is the general opinion of the merchants that the Christmas season for 1917 has been most successful,” and “in fact from a business sense, it surpasses all previous records.”

Church observances included a 6 a.m. service that opened with the sound of bugles from the tower of St. Paul Lutheran Church.

The Salvation Army scheduled an 8 p.m. Christmas party, and “a special invitation is extended to children who do not have the privilege of a Christmas at home.”

There also were Christmas celebrations for people far from home, U.S. Army soldiers who were based here in 1917. The YMCA hosted programs in the Army’s Vancouver Barracks and in the tent city housing troops who worked at the spruce mill.

Music on the extended Christmas weekend also included patriotic themes, with a Sunday performance by the shipyard band at the G.M. Standifer shipyard.

The holiday season always offers an opportunity to look back on the previous 12 months and consider the year ahead. Our Christmas Day edition in 1917 maintained the journalistic holiday tradition.

“Vancouver has much to be thankful for at this Christmas tide. Merchants have generally had much better business than in former years. Industry is moving at top speed. … it is probable that a steady growth will continue during the coming year, and Vancouver will see more prosperous times during 1918 than in 1917.”

Some of those topics are still in the news a century later. The review of 1917 reported that “every house in the town has filled up, and the cry today is for more houses in which to live.”

(Vancouver was a city of about 10,000 back then — not counting the wartime influx of troops. The U.S. census listed Vancouver’s population as 9,300 in 1910 and 12,637 in 1920.)

Mayor Grover R. Percival struck another familiar note earlier in December 1917 when he addressed the city council. A big topic in the mayor’s speech was waterfront development.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the twist.

“He pointed out that it would be the most desirable place in which to build manufacturing and develop industry.”

And in 2017? Not really what we’re looking for, waterfront-wise.

A couple of significant public projects that were completed in 1917 are still serving the community in their original roles. The bigger one was the Interstate Bridge, which opened on Feb. 14, 1917 to much fanfare.

It didn’t seem to be in the news 10 months later, however; the only Columbian reference that seemed to reflect the new bridge was in an ad. A downtown furniture store wanted Christmas shoppers to know that “We can save you the trip and expense of going out of town … and you boost Vancouver at the same time.”

The other new piece of construction did make a big contribution to the 1917 Christmas season: the downtown post office building on Daniels Street. The goal was to have it open in time for the Christmas rush, and boy, was there ever a Christmas rush — thanks in part to the war.

The Columbian reported on Dec. 24, 1917, that “post office clerks are swamped beneath a flood of incoming and outgoing Christmas mail. Never has the Christmas mail been so heavy.

“Exceptionally heavy is the tide of Christmas messages and packages being mailed to Vancouver Barracks” and mail sent by local families “to every army camp in the United States and France.”

But for some Vancouver families, the best holiday mail of all arrived a few days after Christmas.

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” ‘Safe in France and feeling fine’ is the way a card reads that was received this morning from the bunch of Vancouver boys who are with the old 3rd Oregon,” the paper reported on Jan. 8.

“There had been some worry on the part of the parents on account of not hearing from the boys, but the card clears it all up.”

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter