17 December 2012

Inventing Santa Claus (who magically appears the week before year end inventory)

In the words of children everywhere, what did Santa brings us? Mass consumption and sales enough to empty shelves just before year end inventory.

One of the more curious social inventions was Santa Claus. Santa did not just make children happy. He made store owners happy. Santa as we know him - the gift-giving saint who holds court in department stores - did not exist before factories began to produce more products than could be sold via old habits of consumption. Like the display windows, Santa was part of an attempt to create a fairy tale land where consumers were convinced that shopping was a kind of magic. He also helped to clear out products just before it was time to perform year-end inventory. He did not just give gifts to children. He was a gift to the stores.

Santa began to appear in department stores in the late 19th century, just as American factories began to produce goods at a greater rate than anyone had dared to imagine even a generation earlier.

Christmas gift giving helped to stimulate sales after the American Civil War. In 1867, “Macy’s department store remain[ed] open until midnight Christmas Eve, set[ting] a one-day record of $6,000 in receipts."[1] Around 1870, Christmas made “December retail sales more than twice those of any other month.”[2] The fact that stores could sell so many products merely one week before year-end inventories was kind of magical.
In that same year, 1870, 
“The United States had the largest economy in the world, and its best years still lay ahead. … This American system of manufacture had created, for better or worse, a new world of insatiable consumerism, much decried by critics who feared for the souls and manners of common people. The world had long learned to live with the lavishness and indulgences of the rich and genteel; but now, for the first time in history, even ordinary folks could aspire to ownership of those hard goods—watches, clocks, bicycles, telephones, radios, domestic machines, above all the automobile—that were seen in traditional societies as the appropriate privilege of the few. All of this was facilitated in turn by innovations in marketing: installment buying, consumer credit, catalogue sales of big as well as small items; rights of return and exchange. These were not unknown in Europe, which pioneered in some of these areas. It was the synergy that made America so productive. Mass consumption made mass production feasible and profitable; and vice versa.”[3]

[1] Beniger, The Control Revolution, 260.
[2] Beniger, The Control Revolution,
[3] David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: Norton, 1999). 307.

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