Decades before the Wyoming Valley Mall and surrounding malls were built and modern online shopping took hold, people shopped at the many stores in and around the public square in Wilkes-Barre.
In what many downtown merchants considered a “surprise party,” approximately 20,000 people gathered in Public Square to kick off the Christmas season on December 4, 1923.
“The spirit of Christmas was evident in the Public Square last night to a degree never before seen in the Wyoming Valley, and according to the members of the Public Square Merchants Association, Wilkes-Barre’s first Christmas party was quite the surprise party,” said Wilkes- The Barre Record reported on December 5, 1923.
The event was not much of a “surprise” as planning for the event began in September 1923 and preparations began in November of that year.
“Two thousand electric lanterns, spaced two feet apart along the inner and outer circles, will decorate Public Square during the holiday season,” reported the November 17, 1923 Record.
An advertisement in the Record of November 29, 1923 promoted an event organized by the Public Square Association.
“Bands and orchestras will play and myriads of colorful electric lights will ignite the Christmas spirit on Tuesday evening when Public Square becomes the scene of a community Christmas festival,” reported the Record on December 3, 1923.
The police closed Public Square to traffic, and the Wilkes-Barre Traction Company assigned extra street cars to transport the throngs of participants.
“Dozens of Santas will be performing their annual role to entertain children who flock to Toyland and every effort will be made to give people in the community a perfect evening. Dances, music, refreshments, practical demonstrations in everything: from baking cakes to washing work clothes – in the program of the evening,” reports “Record”.
Stores such as Benesch & Sons, MacWilliams, Duncan & Homer, and the Boston Store reserved floors in their buildings to house toys, and Joseph S. Coons & Co. cleared the first floor to make room for dancing.
“Over $350,000 worth of diamonds will be on display at Jerome Meyer & Sons, and this display is said to be the largest collection of diamonds ever exhibited in this city,” reported the Record.
The event began at 7:30 p.m., when Alexander’s band started signing near the Christmas tree in the middle of the Public Square.
“Thousands of people filed in and out of the various stores, children between the ages of two and 12 wept with amazement at the unusual toy displays arranged on different stories,” the Record reported.
Heavy-duty police officers struggled to keep up with eager crowds trying to get into Duncan & Homer’s, where the fourth floor was completely filled with toys, and staff at Benesch & Sons had trouble directing pedestrians past the double doors.
Benesch & Sons gave away a “beautiful cedar chest” as a door prize.
Columbo’s Cigar Shop was brightly lit for the occasion and a tug-of-war competition was held outside The Hub.
At MacWilliams’ department store, which later housed Pomeroy’s, dozens of shoppers would enter the store and be greeted by the Penn-Barron and Gilligan Orchestra.
Young girls modeled the latest women’s dress collections on the second floor of MacWilliams, while wide-eyed children stared at the store’s toyland, the Record reported.
“Police estimate the number of people who attended the party at more than 20,000 people. With the traffic cut off from the Public Square, the sidewalks, roadway and park resembled a huge playground. Beautiful lighting effects, a Christmas tree and Alexander’s band contributed to making the holiday festive in every sense of the word,” writes “Record”.
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