Christmastime in Knoxville, 1910

Wherein the holiday becomes almost normal: Part I

"He darts in and out the alleys and even in the hotel lobbies, and it takes about a minute's time to pass a customer the bottle and receive the cash," wrote a reporter for the Journal & Tribune. "The transaction is usually in a dark place...the moment he receives the money, he disappears."

Police raided the "soft-drink stands" that had proliferated since the saloon ban on South Central Street turned up whiskey hidden in barrels and trunks, and now and then busted another "cocaine joint." Harder to catch were these elusive "hip merchants" who had pockets sewn into their overcoats, each operating as "a perambulating barroom."

Police had to depend on undercover informants known as "pikers." After testifying, pikers often felt obliged to leave Knoxville.

But even prohibition's opponents had to admit that the violent free-for-all once known as Christmas had simmered down in the three years since the saloon ban. Christmas had evolved into what it would be for the century to come, a crypto-religious month-long shopping binge. The crush of shopping may in fact have been more furious in 1910 than today. Downtown Knoxville was the Mall for most of East Tennessee and points beyond. Market Square stayed open later in 1910 than West Town Mall does today.

The passenger trains and hotels were full of shoppers. Shoppers from as far away as Virginia would get a room at a hotel, like the Imperial, the Stratford, or the brand-new Atkin—the "Mammoth, Modern, European Hotel" near the Southern Station—and make a vacation of it.

Days were cold that December, mostly below freezing, and when it was cold the shallow southern side of the river froze, and hundreds went ice skating.

Miller's advertisement looks almost religious: "HE IS HERE," it trumpeted, in huge, solemn letters—above a picture of Santa Claus in a Wright-style biplane on the roof of the place that touted itself as The Big Store. Miller's basement offered "toys, dolls, and all kinds of Christmas things"—among them, mechanical trains, velocipedes and "Irish mails," pedal quadricycles. For adults, "deliciously dainty" kimonos of "new Japanese silk."

Miller's chief rival Arnstein's did most of their business in fashions, but that season advertised "dolls—the prettiest that Germany produces" and "real Indian hand-woven blankets." Newspapers remarked on "the oddity of the 1910 Christmas Doll." They were odd, indeed. The trend that year seems to have been to make animal dolls with human-baby faces: an owl baby, a rooster baby, an elephant baby.

Cameras were big, both Kodak's Brownie and Ansco's knock-off, the Buster Brown. But mainly it was "the Aviation Christmas." New stunts, new records broken, were on the front page almost every other day, and many Knoxvillians had seen their first airplane just that fall, when a biplane landed at the racetrack near Chilhowee Park.

Toymakers deftly followed the Wrights' invention with a wide range of wind-up propeller-driven miniatures made of celluloid, wood, even silk. Most of them worked better than the plane Wilbur and Orville had flown at Kitty Hawk seven years earlier. You could also buy airplane-style kites and toy dirigibles.

A buy-local movement was afoot. "Knoxville Made" stickers appeared on local products. Among the most popular holiday options were Kern's on Market Square, where you could buy fruitcakes and candies and Christmas-tree ornaments, and Littlefield and Steere, whose downtown factory made fancy chocolates.

Newcomers, in the space that would many years later be occupied by Mast, claimed to contain Knoxville's Brightest Toy Store, with lots of up-to-date high-tech stuff, like Magic Lanterns and motion-picture projectors. They advertised a nightly appearance of the "Hotel Atkin Orchestra": just a piano, cornet, and Bertha Roth Walburn on violin, 25 years before she gave birth to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. They played waltzes, bits of operettas, classical pieces: Smetana, Tchaikovsky, none of them obviously seasonal.

Gay Street offered a surprise. The Nicholson Art League, a vigorous group of artists and dilettantes recently enthralled with French Impressionism, opened its first public studio at 604 S. Gay St., offering a "splendid local exhibit of arts and crafts." The second-floor studio's stairway entrance was in the back of the Douglass Art Co. Hailed as "the first time a studio had been opened to the general public and offered as a permanent center for the exhibit of the work of local artists," it featured the work of Catherine Wiley, Adelia Lutz, Lloyd Branson, Charles Krutch.

"Today's event will mark an epoch in the history of the city," went the report, but the studio, perhaps Knoxville's first real art gallery, is forgotten.

***

On December 20, it snowed for about three hours, enough to leave "a mantel of pure white on the treetops and roofs of buildings." Southern ran extra trains to accommodate the shopping rush, but the station got quieter after midnight.

At 3:30 a.m. on December 22, a visitor to the train station's men's room found a young man unconscious in a toilet stall at the Southern terminal. He looked young, some guessed only 23.

He was presumed to be drunk. Frank Dobson, the desk sergeant at police headquarters on Market Square, took the call. He sent two officers—patrolman Will Malone and a driver named Price, with a horse-drawn paddy wagon, to the terminal. The two cops carried the man out, loaded him into the wagon, and took him into the jail on Market Square. They had him in a cell before they realized the young man wasn't breathing. The city physician, Henry Smith, who lived just a few doors away from the jail on Asylum Avenue, was awakened to confirm it. Dr. Smith said the young man had been dead for about an hour and a half.

He had nothing on him, not even a scrap of paper. Only a small glass bottle of unidentified pills.

He looked familiar. One cop thought his name was Williams. But more and more, people recognized him as "Dude" Adams, the baseball player.

[to be continued....]