Friday, December 13, 2013

A 1950's Christmas in San Francisco

The Emporium's Rooftop Christmas Carnival
Christmas began after Thanksgiving in San Francisco in the '50's.

Designers and window decorators worked into the wee hours to create a Christmas wonderland downtown. We savored our Thanksgiving turkey and afterwards, relaxed with apple pie in the living room and planned our annual bus trip downtown to see the decorations.

The early 1950s was a time when you could live "out in the avenues" and leave your door unlocked. Children could play after school outside, unsupervised. Of course you found out that you really were supervised when you did something that was not allowed.... such as cross the street or hit another child. We walked to grammar school each day. It was a good time to be a child in San Francisco.

Christmas was a time to bring out the family ornaments and decorations. It was a simple time when all ornaments had meaning and history. There was the little glass bell that actually rang. It was from my grandparents' era. There was the beautiful glass peacock with a tail that clipped on a branch. To finish the tree we used aluminum garlands and cheezy icicles. The lights, of course, were multi-colored. Nothing was color-coordinated and nothing was designed by a professional. And our tree came from a nearby lot. We carried it home. It was a real tree on an X shaped wooden stand my father constructed.

We usually went downtown on a Saturday. We took the Muni bus because that is what most people did. It took us through all sorts of neighborhoods on the way. There were churches, Victorian homes, barbershops, ethnic restaurants, and a few seedy places too. The trip was always interesting for the quiet little girl who loved sitting by the window.
We walked but others rode the Cable Car to Market Street

Once we made it to the brightly lighted downtown area we walked down Powell, past Union Square,  to Market Street.  The flower stands with rows of bright bouquets added color to the sidewalks. Everyone was dressed up. Women wore a dress coat, gloves, and hat. Men wore ties, suits, and hats. Women clicked along the streets in their high-heeled shoes. Men tipped their hats when meeting a woman.

Market Street was an exciting street with the Cable Car turntable in front of Woolworths, streetcars running down Market and even private cars. Often there were rabid evangelicals preaching loudly from the corner. Sometimes a few street people begged for some change or mumbled to themselves.  It was a quick crossing over to The Emporium. 

This was a time when you could say the word Christmas, and my Jewish friends equally enjoyed talking about Hanukkah.  Downtown San Francisco was all decked out in its Christmas finery. The Emporium department store always had fascinating moving displays in their windows. We went window to window to ooh and aah over the decorations and the dolls that skated and trains that ran in circles around the tree. But the magic awaited those who took an elevator to the Emporium's rooftop. There we found a Ferris wheel, a little train, and more Christmas cheer.  I heard that the last Christmas carnival was held in 1995, the Emporium’s 100th anniversary year and the year the store closed. 

City of Paris Christmas Tree
We might stop by Woolworths for a little something (some thread, a lipstick or a costume jewelry pin)  and then head over to Macy's. We passed the little shop where my mother bought her hats but didn't go in. This was all about Christmas.

Macy's was always beautifully decorated inside and out. The window displays, there too, had moving bears, dancers and more surprises for those who took time to watch at each window. And we did.... it was worth it.

Inside, we looked up at the columns decorated with Christmas balls and bows and up higher at the tall ceilings with garlands. Macy's had a restaurant (or was it Blum's) where we often treated ourselves to a turkey sandwich and chocolate milkshake.

But then it was across the street to see the most amazing tree. The multi-story tree at the City of Paris was always a special destination.  Located in the open rotunda of the department store, the 40-foot natural tree was a sight to behold. Decorated in the traditional style, the tree had toys, glass balls, and garlands. We could go up to different floors to get views of the tree from behind the railings. I always wondered how they got the tree into the store!

Maiden Lane at Christmas was not to be missed. This little lane, reminiscent of a small European street was decorated. But our destination was specific... it was the Grant Avenue floral shop of Podesta Baldocci which is still in existence today. Podesta's had floor to ceiling decorations. From gorgeous poinsettias to amazing white floral decorations, it was the most creative, artistic stop on our tour and it smelled heavenly. 
Podesta's as seen in the movie Vertigo

One of our Christmas stops was The White House on Grant. It was a large department store that filled almost the whole block. My best memories of The White House included the cute little elf, Happy Holly, and the contemporary graphics on the boxes... very chic!

Happy Holly from
The White House Department Store
After a long day downtown, we were tired and headed back toward the bus stop. It was all uphill. But first, we passed through Union Square to admire the tree there. Often there were carolers and choirs performing. A street policeman directed traffic at the corner.

The sun was setting as we boarded the #2 Clement bus which took us slowly back to the Richmond District. The bus was often crowded with shoppers with full shopping bags, many of whom had to stand through the first part of the journey. And the bus stopped at every single stop!

It was foggy out in the Richmond when we returned. We ran across the street and down to our home quickly, warding off the chill. The thoughts of Christmas to come and the thrill of the decor in downtown San Francisco warmed my little girl heart. 


  1. What an enjoyable nostalgia trip!

  2. From a reader: "THANK YOU for such a perfectly magicical and nostalgic reminiscence!! I have sent it on to many who already indicate that fond memories of everything you mentioned has flooded them with pleasure. One friend wanted to know why Gump's and Shreve's were not included but not to worry - everyone has an individual tweak! I have yet to find anyone who love creamed spinach and a chocolate milkshake at Townsend's - next to the Nut House (wafting smells of roasted nuts drew you in), just down from the City of Paris. Send this out as a Christmas tradition!"

  3. More comments from readers: Thank You, that was the history of my life growing up in San Francisco~~~~~~~~~it brought back GREAT MEMORIES!!! I rode the streetcar to school & downtown ALONE~~~~~~~~things sure have changed!

    Kind of makes you want to throw away your smart phone and I-Pad. Thanks for sharing.

    This is so reminiscent of San Francisco......Maiden Lane and chicken pot pie at Robinson’s and then to the pet store; the City of Paris tree and of course the Emporium and Macy’s. Where were Shreve’s and Gump’s? Elizabeth did a beautiful job of putting me right in the middle of The City.

  4. Nice post about memories and a San Francisco of the past!

  5. I grew up in Philly, not San Francisco, but I think all big cities had/have their Christmas traditions. In Philadelphia, it was the Wanamakers Department store massive organ and Christmas light show. It's a Macy's now, but they have kept the tradition. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  6. I grew up in a small town in Central Washington State but you've captured the magic of the season as I remember it there. One of my favorite Christmas memories was 'starring' as Mary (my stuffed rabbit Timmy was Baby Jesus) in our elementary school play. . .our PUBLIC school play, where we also sang Christmas Carols around a Christmas tree. Those days are long gone, but the warm, happy memories remain. Thanks for a wonderful trip back to the good times!

  7. This is a great piece! Thank you for writing it. I have a Happy Holly sitting on my bookshelf and for some reason I thought it came from the Emporium, but now I know it came from the White House. I remember the roof rides too and the different stores you talked about. We liked to go to Foster's for hot chocolate and an English muffin. As I recall,they were inexpensive restaurants located in the downtown area.

    1. Don, I recently encountered MY original Happy Holly and changed the photo to show my actual HH!

    2. Do you know where I can find a happy holly doll?

    3. Probably ebay or a vintage store. You'll have to hunt!

  8. Thank you so much for this piece. Memories of San Francisco at Christmas are so dear to me. My grandmother took me every year (1948-195?) to the Emporium and other decorated stores from our home in Albany. We'd eat at Pig and Whistle and tour every sight. when I was older my parents treated me to outings at the Fairmont Hotel - the Papagayo Room, Tonga Room, Le Ronde, that fabulous lobby. I remember it all so well. What I wouldn't give for some photos of the Emporium windows! I still love the city; always said if I won the lottery I would live there; still dreaming at age 70 !!!

  9. We always went over from the more rural Marin County to do our Christmas shopping in The City. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  10. Thank you Elizabeth for these wonderful memories. I've managed to find half a dozen of the HAPPY HOLLY figures, they bring back so many great memories. I like to put them out at Christmas time around our old White House department store photos of our visits to see Santa Claus. I spent untold hours dreaming through the toy departments at the Emporium and City of Paris. My mother always knew she could most often find me in the "Toy Box" on the 7th floor of (my favorite) I. Magnin department store. She never had a problem locating us - how she did it without a cell phone is beyond me!

  11. What great memories everyone is leaving here. I enjoy the comments and your memories so much!

  12. Your memories could be mine! When you mentioned the City of Paris, I couldn't help but smile. My grandmother worked in the offices on the top floor. She said that the Christmas tree was dropped down through the stained glass skylights in the rotunda by a crane during the night.

    I fondly remembered the other places you mentioned but Podestas really was nostalgic. I remember ice cream sodas at Blum's and caramel cake at Townsend's on Maiden Lane. Ah! Maiden Lane! Stopping by the shoe repair and of course a visit to the pet shop; the small, quaint two story pet shop that was featured in the first scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

    Thank you so much for sharing these precious memories. Things have changed so much, my kids and grandkids have no idea what they missed!

  13. What great memories of going downtown with my great aunt and going to Woolworths for a club sandwich and strawberry soda. Later, we headed to the carnival upon the roof of the Emporium. First stop was a visit with Santa. If you paid for a gift, it came down a slide. I liked the set of little books. Pink popcorn was always on the treat list if not the cotton candy. There were several rides including a train. And, the windows were magical at all of the stores. We would walk up to the White House and my aunt would rest a bit in the ladies huge lounge. They had phone books there from around the world. Then we would walk to the City of Paris to gaze at the magnificent tree which always had an audience. It was a terrific day! The other spot for lunch was Blum's at Union Square.

  14. I so love the memories that people post here!