Christmas time in the city, 1930

By Dr. Cheryl Griffin, Royal Historical Society of Victoria

The Myer Emporium expanded to Lonsdale St in the 1920s at a time when this section of Little Bourke St was known as Post Office Place. 

Only a few years earlier you would have seen horse-drawn traffic dominating the street scene, but by 1930, when this photograph was taken, cars dominated the roads, although it was still possible for pedestrians to walk down the middle of the street safely, as you can see in the photo. 

From the time traffic congestion became an issue way back in the 1910s, cars have travelled from east to west along Little Bourke St, so in this image the photographer is pointing his camera north-west and the street continues west towards Elizabeth St and the GPO (the General Post Office, on the opposite side of the street, out of view – now H&M) before heading up the hill to Queen St and beyond.

Myer called this new building the Myer New Store and its Christmas 1925 advertising (as seen in The Herald, November 18, 1925) showed a genial Father Christmas looming over the store, a gigantic sack of toys by his feet, with a message to Melbourne’s children: “Meet me in the Myer New Lonsdale St Store!”

For sixpence children could enjoy the Myer’s Christmas Carnival and not only meet Santa Claus, but also receive a gift from him. “Children!” exclaimed Santa, “Ask your mother to buy you a ticket for the gift you want.” No pressure there, mother!

The clock above the Lonsdale St store entrance in this photograph indicates that it’s early afternoon – 12.35pm – and the presence of those two skinny-legged Father Christmases at either end of the building tells us that it’s the lead-up to Christmas. 

You can see a “Toys” sign near the western end of the building, so that was sure to be a busy department. 

It’s hard to tell which month it is, but the absence of children suggests that it’s either November or early December and a weekday when the children are all safely tucked away in school. I wonder how many of the people pictured here were busily employed on Santa’s secret business.

There were no Myer Christmas windows in the Bourke St store to gaze into at this time. They didn’t come until 1956, Olympic Games year, when the theme was Santa and the Olympics. 

Each year families flocked to the city in increasing numbers to see the magical displays. It was a special treat. At night, pyjama-clad children, along with parents and grandparents, would stare wide-eyed at the fairy-tale worlds that the amazing Fred Asmussen created until his death in 1974.

Much as I hate to admit it, and although I loved the Myer windows, I was always rather drawn to the gigantic, rather garish Santa that dominated the Foys building on the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets. Ours was a family where the story of the nativity was all-important, but I really hankered after the promise of large and glamorous Christmas presents that I was sure this Santa represented.

But back to Myer in 1930 …

Each window displays a sign “Xmas Carnival”, so the 1925 Carnival tradition is well ingrained, despite harder economic times. And did you notice the sign in the window to the right of this image? “Myer Home Made Cakes”. The window is full of tempting cakes, but I wonder how many people bought their Christmas cakes there. 

This was the beginning of the lean years of the 1930s depression, although the great hardships of that decade were still to come. Besides, making your own Christmas cake and Christmas pudding was a tradition for most families, starting months earlier with soaking fruit in alcohol and hanging puddings in cloth in anticipation of the consumption of delicious cake and pudding over the festive season. 

These were very different days. There was no Bourke Street Mall in 1930. The shops dominating that strip of Bourke St were the retail giants Myer, Buckley & Nunn and Foy & Gibson. They all lined up along the same side of Bourke St, all drawing huge numbers of customers and presenting what was then a very modern experience of shopping. 

No doubt people lamented the commercialisation of Christmas as seen here, but no one could have foreseen the changes that have taken place over the following 90 years. One thing stays the same, though. There is still something compelling about Christmas. The Myer windows are still there and the hunt for the perfect gift for friends and family continues. 

(The RHSV has the perfect gift for nostalgia buffs, our just launched book, Melbourne’s Twenty Decades, 148 glorious images of an earlier Melbourne. Just $24. www.historyvictoria.org.au)

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