Thursday, November 27, 2014

'How Many Shopping Days Until Christmas?'

If you landed here because you asked your search engine, "How many shopping days until Christmas?," the answer as this went to press was "27."  If you've landed here after November 27, you can check out this handy countdown clock to find out the accurate answer.

The reason for the headline is more to explore the origin of the phrase "only x shopping days until Christmas."

The conventional story of the origin of "shopping days until Christmas" is that the phrase was coined by Wisconsin-born retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge and Company in Oxford Street (London).  There is renewed interest in Selfridge's life and work due to a popular British TV series about him, starring Jeremy Piven, that has also been broadcast on public television in the United States.

It is clear from both factual and fictionalized portrayals of Selfridge that he was an innovative merchant, but research I have done suggests that he is unlikely to have been the coiner of the now-ubiquitous countdown phrase.

According to Selfridge's Wikipedia entry, which lacks a citation for the point,

While at Marshall Field, Selfridge was the first to promote Christmas sales with the phrase "Only _____ Shopping Days Until Christmas", a catchphrase that was quickly picked up by retailers in other markets. Either he or Marshall Field is also credited with popularizing the phrase "The customer is always right."
The UK-based web site "The Phrase Finder," citing the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, repeats the same information:
American retailer H. Gordon Selfridge (1856-1947) coined this expression - " __ shopping days until Christmas" while working for Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. Later he coined the slogan "the customer is always right" when he opened Selfridge's in London.
An Australian web site,, acknowledges that Selfridge may have heard the phrase somewhere else before he used it in marketing his own store's products. Writer Michelle Holland cites another book (Who Said That First?, by Max Cryer) as her source:
The idea of reminding people how much shopping time is left before Christmas is not new. On 19 December 1900 the Los Angeles Times displayed a reminder: ‘There are only (counting today) five more shopping days till Christmas.’ Four days later the Washington Post took up the cry: ‘Only one more shopping day until Christmas.’

At the time Gordon Selfridge was working with Marshall Field and Company in Chicago. He may have picked up the idea from the newspapers mentioned, but certainly he soon instructed his staff to drive the same slogan, which put a real sense of urgency into the shopping lead-up to Christmas. Before long it was used worldwide.
A careful search on turns up several uses of the phrase several years before the 1900 citations from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. The earliest usage I can find was in 1891 but it was frequently used in the 1890s in locations as various as Boston and Cedar Rapids and in various small towns in the Midwest (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Mansfield, Ohio, for instance).

The earliest example I can find from Gordon Selfridge himself comes from 1909, the first Christmas season that Selfridges was open:

London Standard, December 16, 1909
Yet I was not able to find any uses of the phrase in Chicago newspapers during the time that Selfridge worked for Marshall Field. The earliest instance appears to be from the front page of the Chicago Heights Star on December 17, 1908 -- about two years after Selfridge had moved to London to build his own department store.
Chicago Heights Star, December 17, 1908
One Illinois newspaper used the phrase in 1897 -- but that was in Jacksonville, a central Illinois city some 235 miles southwest of Chicago and unlikely to be familiar to Selfridge.

Jacksonville (Ill.) Daily Journal, December 8, 1897
Four years earlier, a Massachusetts merchant, Hollander Bradshaw Folsom, used the phrase in a large advertisement for a variety of products it had on offer:

Boston Sunday Post, December 10, 1893
That Boston Sunday Post advertisement may be the first time the phrase "only __ shopping days before Christmas" appeared in print.

Two years before that, the same retailer posted this reminder in the Boston Globe: "NOTICE--Please bear in mind that only 16 SHOPPING DAYS now intervene to Christmas, and that during the last ten days all of our floors are jammed."

Boston Sunday Globe, December 6, 1891
I believe that Boston Sunday Globe ad is the earliest use in print of anything close to "shopping days until Christmas," although it is expressed in more flowery language.

In 1894, the Herms Dry Goods Company advertised in the Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times, admonishing readers to "Do Your Xmas Shopping Now" because there were "Only 18 Shopping Days Before Christmas."
The Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio), December 4, 1894
On the same page in that same newspaper was the beginning of the serialization of Stephen Crane's novel, The Red Badge of Courage, up to chapter III. The Daily Times was one of 200 small town dailies that serialized Crane's story that month and helped establish his fame as a writer. Now a high-school lit-class staple, The Red Badge of Courage wasn't published in book form until the following year. (Charlottesville connection: Crane's handwritten manuscript is preserved in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.)

Advertising in the Boston Sunday Globe in 1895, Jordan, Marsh, & Co. claimed to have "the Grandest Aggregation of Holiday Goods in New England" and reminded readers there were "Only 8 More Shopping Days Before Christmas":

Boston Sunday Globe, December 15, 1895
By the turn of the century, the phrase was ubiquitous. Here are some examples:

The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisc.), December 11, 1899

Mansfield (Ohio) News, December 12, 1899

Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Republican, December 23, 1900

Washington Post, November 27, 1904
That last example, published exactly 110 years ago today, is puzzling in that it warns about "only 24 shopping days until Christmas," when it should be 27 days.  The advertiser, Galt & Bro. Jewelers, was at one time the oldest continuously operating business in Washington, D.C.  It closed in March 2001 after nearly two centuries of operation.  It was once managed by Edith Galt, who became the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and effectively president after her husband's debilitating stroke.

To summarize:  The claim that Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase "___ shopping days until Christmas" rests on flimsy ground.  Knowing that Selfridge was a notorious self-promoter, the assertion that he first used it while he was at Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago in the late 19th century may originate with him in one of his expansive chats with journalists (like this 1932 interview with The Milwaukee Journal, in which he lays claim to "the customer is always right").

The earliest near-usage I was able to find was in the Boston Globe in 1891.  (I searched as far back as 1860.)  The earliest precise phrasing I found was two years later, in the Boston Sunday Post. The phrase became common in the 1890s in New England and the Midwest but I found no evidence of Selfridge using it before 1909, even in Chicago newspapers that would have published ads for Marshall Field. That doesn't mean no evidence exists -- just that I could not find it.  If anyone can find an earlier usage attributed to Selfridge, I welcome feedback.

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