Remember When: Cold, shortages, war overcome during Christmas, 1917

Tom Mooney - Remember When | December 18th, 2017 6:00 am

Heavy traffic and long checkout lines getting on your nerves as the Christmas shopping season moves into high gear?

Ready to scream because the store was out of that humongous TV you wanted?

Oh, poor us! If you’d been around in December of 1917, you’d really have had something to complain about — actually three or four things to complain about.

Let’s take a little trip back 75 years to some local “good old days” that might not have been so good after all.

As winter 1917-1918 set in, the people of Wyoming Valley began to notice something — the weather wasn’t just cold, it was really, really cold.

Local temps kept dropping into single digits. Thermometers on Christmas registered 11 below in Wilkes-Barre, with 22 and more below reported in rural areas. Though people didn’t know it, the minus-degree days were no fluke and would continue for months. A very hard winter was just beginning.

But here, in the anthracite capital of the world, couldn’t you just toss another shovelful of pea coal on the fire?

Fat chance! Though anthracite production hit its all-time high in 1917, much of the coal was diverted to support the American war effort, which had started with our entry into “The Great War” in April. Munitions factories and ships got high priority.

We in Northeastern Pennsylvania were relatively lucky, though. Outside the anthracite fields, some cities were actually rationing coal or allowing small coal purchases only for emergencies.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton helped out by urging churches to hold early Masses on holy days so that the miners could give up their days off and report for extra work. School districts compressed the class day to send students home early, saving on heating costs. The federal government ordered manufacturers of nonessential goods to shorten the work week and turn off heat on the days they were closed.

Deep freeze or not, Christmas shopping went on unabated. Streetcars — some piloted for the first time by women — carried people to and from the downtowns, and holiday sales were reported as strong as ever.

In Wilkes-Barre, shoppers could stroll the aisles of big department stores with names like MacWilliam’s, Lazarus, The Boston Store, The Globe and Joseph Coons’ Sons, buying gifts that would seem familiar today — toys, clothing, jewelry, home furnishings. Nice stores abounded in the smaller towns as well.

Yet amid the panoply of yule-themed show windows and exhortations to buy, there was a pall over the holiday spirit. A war was going on. By year’s end, a million U.S. troops were being marshalled for action against Germany, and family after family was saying goodbye to its young men.

The war was inescapable. While the newly designated 109th Field Artillery was still training in Georgia, thousands of local enlistees were serving in other units and would soon be sent abroad for combat. Fear of sabotage was rife, so older men organized a “home guard,” to protect vital industry.

Not even family mealtime was spared disruption. With much of the nation’s food supply allocated to the growing military force, households were urged to hold “meatless” and “wheatless” days, while communities planted “victory gardens” to raise vegetables.

A person could hardly leave the house without facing big posters urging purchase of war bonds called “Liberty Loans,” sometimes portraying German troops as murderous, fanged beasts.

Through cold, shortages and war, though, the community persevered. Certainly, 1917 offered a Christmas to remember.

Tom Mooney Remember When Mooney Remember When

Tom Mooney

Remember When

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]