Christmas Shopping at C.C. Clayton’s in Ocean Grove, 1895

By Kim Brittingham

It was December 14, 1895, and for several years in a row, C. C. Clayton’s dry goods store (sometimes called Clayton’s Emporium) could be counted on to run a nice big ad in the Ocean Grove newspaper right before Christmas, trumpeting their unbeatable prices on gifts. The ads typically listed practical goods like cloaks, shoes, and underwear; sometimes blankets and towels. But in 1895, something changed. Suddenly, the big draw was toys.

I thought this was an interesting reflection of how Christmas became more and more child-centric as the Victorian era progressed.

Queen Victoria was largely responsible for turning Christmas into the celebratory season it is today. Prior to her reign beginning in 1837, Christmas was hardly even mentioned in Britain or the United States. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Presents were sometimes exchanged within families, but only to mark the New Year.

With one gesture, Victoria and Albert showed the world an entirely new kind of Christmas. In the 1840s, they adopted the old German tradition of bringing an evergreen tree indoors and decorated it with the help of their children. Suddenly, every family wanted a Christmas Tree.

In the early part of the 19th century, most children received small gifts like fruit and nuts at Christmas. At that time, toys were handmade and thus usually expensive. However, with the Industrial Revolution, mass production made toys more affordable to more children.

Also, children in the early 1800s who went straight to work in the fields or workshops with their parents became adults who worked rigid schedules in factories, mills and shops, with Christmas Day and Boxing Day (December 26th) designated as days off. With those free days on their hands and under Queen Victoria’s influence, Christmas became a time to enjoy family at home.

Santa Claus as we know him, in the red suit delivering presents to children from a reindeer-drawn sleigh, was first introduced in 1821 in a book called The Children’s Friend, and reappeared in 1823 in the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, now better known as “The Night Before Christmas”. In the following decades, children came to embrace the Santa Claus legend and looked for his visits on Christmas Eve.

The timing was perfect for Victorian parents who had the means and motivation to dote on their children. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a rising middle class whose children didn’t have to work and could officially enjoy a childhood.

All the elements together — Queen Victoria’s elevation of Christmas, economic shifts, the unstoppable rise of Santa, the availability of mass produced toys and children with the time to enjoy them — combined to create…well, let’s say, the perfect snow storm. By 1895, C. C. Clayton and most of America and Britain had given Christmas over to the kids.

The 1895 ad with its “Grand Display” put me in mind of a movie — A Christmas Story.There’s a scene in which young Ralphie stands awestruck before a department store window twinkling with toys. Although that movie represents a later era, I can still imagine a gaggle of 19th century moppets crowding the sidewalk on Main Avenue in Ocean Grove, pressing their noses against the glass of Clayton’s.

The old ad made me curious about Clayton’s. So I decided to do some digging.

I learned that C. C. Clayton’s store once stood on the spot where the Sea Grass restaurant is today, on Main Avenue between Pilgrim Pathway and New York Avenue.

In the archives of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove, I found one lone battered sepia photograph showing the interior of Clayton’s, probably taken between 1890-1910. (Note the odd placement of the radiator down the center of the store!)

Also in the HSOG archives, I found a newspaper clipping without a publication name or date. It’s titled, “Clayton Firm Dates to 1873”. It was written at a time when the store was still in operation. Here’s what it tells us about Clayton’s:

When the late President Ulysses S. Grant was forced to replenish his wardrobe while visiting at Long Branch back in the 1870s, he hitched up his horse and buggy and travelled down to Ocean Grove to the store of C. C. Clayton.

The fact that it furnished blue serge suits to the late president is only one of the distinctions of the Clayton business, now located in a prominent spot on Main Avenue, Ocean Grove. Altho [sic] there are no official records to back up such a claim, it is believed that the Clayton shop was the first department store to be established along the coast.

When the business was first started — back in those days when James A. Bradley was wondering what he was going to do with the brush-studded sand dunes which eventually became Asbury Park — it was housed in a small structure on Pilgrim Pathway. It was known as Hulse and Clayton.

Later it moved to the Main Avenue site it occupies today. In those days the entire business was comfortably contained in a space about half the size of the shoe department of the  present firm. Despite the small quarters, the store carried a complete line of shoes, clothing, and notions for the residents of the campmeeting resort.

W.F. Clayton, son of C.C. Clayton, the founder of the business, said that the firm has been located at the Main Avenue site for at least 60 years. He has found leases for the place dating back to 1873.

W.F. Clayton succeeded to the head of the firm when his father died in 1918. Prior to that he had been postmaster at Ocean Grove during the first term of the late president, Woodrow Wilson.

Looking at the modest two-story Sea Grass restaurant today, it’s hard to believe C.C. Clayton’s grand store ever occupied the same space. However, a newspaper ad from the June 5, 1880 edition of the Ocean Grove Record shows an illustration of the store, which occupied at least part of a building known as “Ocean House”. If you look closely, you can even see the name “C.C. Clayton” drawn above the door.

In 2000, the Monmouth County Library System conducted a series of interviews with residents for a project it called “Remembering the 20th Century: An Oral History of Monmouth County”.One of its interviewees was Mary Jane Schwartz. She was interviewed in her home at 72 1/2 Embury Avenue, Ocean Grove — the same house she was born in on November 19, 1915.  She talked about shopping at Clayton’s in her youth:

“We went around to Clayton Store on Main Avenue, of course the entrance was on Main Avenue, and we just scooted around and went in the back entrance. They had plenty of calico at Clayton’s. We knew the clerks by name, and they knew us because we were there all the time. I remember at the back of the store where you went in, I suppose it’s the kitchen now for those restaurants that are in the same building, there was a big, barn-like place where they sold rugs and linoleum. When you went in the back entrance, you’d have that nice smell because it was different. It probably wasn’t good for your lungs, but it was ok. Then in the back where you went through the little entrance, sort of like a doorway or archway, they had a little table where they would have the remnants. Every time I went in there, I used to straighten out the remnants. There were two clerks that used to be there…two ladies. One was Miss Crevatt and Harding was the other lady’s name. They were there for years and years. In the film Gone With the Wind, there is a scene where Scarlett is in Atlanta, and she is in some scene. In that scene there is a big sort of cabinet where they kept spool thread. They had one exactly like that at C.C. Clayton’s. I wonder whatever happened to that? It probably got thrown out. It was a big cabinet, and you’d pull your thread out the bottom.”

She also talked a little about Christmas in Ocean Grove:

“Well, they started having Christmas trees in this family when Edna and Minerva were small. They were born in the 1890s, and they used to put a Christmas tree in one of these corners here. The tree that Papa bought wasn’t filled out like he thought it should be because the ceiling was not that high, so some of the branches were cut off the bottom and inserted in the trunk of the tree to make it fuller. And he tacked it up with a string to stabilize it. And we used to sit and play games with the Christmas tree like “I see”, where you’d pick out a special ball. You’d describe the colors in the ball, and the people had to guess which one you were thinking of.”

After reading Ms. Schwartz’s comments about the back entrance of Clayton’s, I couldn’t resist walking over to look at the rear of the building where Sea Grass’s kitchen door is today. Structurally, it looks something like a small store entrance. Had this been the entrance to the old Clayton’s “barn-like” rug department?

Ms. Schwartz also got me curious about that old spool cabinet from Clayton’s — like the one she said appeared in Gone With the Wind. Above I’ve posted a still of the scene I think she’s referring to. Can you see the big wooden thread cabinet near the center of the frame?

The thread cabinet in Clayton’s must have been something like this cabinet, the way Ms. Schwartz described pulling the thread out of the bottom (see photo).

I thought it was sweet that Ms. Schwartz wondered “whatever happened to that”, because I often find myself doing the same thing — wondering where all the “things” from the past wound up.  Are there display cabinets from Clayton’s store nestled in various homes around New Jersey, housing collections of Beanie Babies and fishing lures? Or are some of them doing extended duty in antique shops?

I also wondered exactly what was in that twinkling holiday window at Clayton’s in December of 1895. I haven’t been lucky enough to score a photograph of a Clayton’s window display, so I have to let my imagination do the job. My imagination and a little research, that is.

“Toys, Dolls, Games” the ad said. What toys, dolls and games were available to kids in 1895?

There were cast iron toys like mechanical banks and steam trains.

There were wind-up tin birds that flapped their wings and mechanical tin insects that skittered across the floor; clockwork carousels that spun on their own and must have seemed magical.

There were modest dolls made of cloth and fancy French porcelain dolls dressed in ruffles and lace. There were dolls made of paper, too, with paper clothes, and sometimes paper furniture that could be made to stand on its own when folded.

There were paper soldiers, tin soliders, wooden soldiers. There were miniature castles and mansions for dolls.

There were toy horse-drawn wagons that looked just like the ones that trotted the streets of Ocean Grove each morning carrying vegetables, fish, and ice.

The Parker Brothers were one of several companies making board games in the 1880s, and by 1895 they had released games like “Baker’s Dozen”, “Mansion of Happiness”, “Tiddledy Winks” and “Innocence Abroad”.

There were jigsaw puzzles and card games like “Old Maid” and “Komical Konversation Kards”.

There were pull toys on wheels, from metal stallions to plush sheep.

There were more than enough toys to fill Santa’s pack — and Clayton’s window.

At Centennial Cottage, a living history museum here in Ocean Grove, one of three cottage bedrooms is appointed as a nursery. On display are a variety of antique toys, including at least one that was actually owned by an Ocean Grove child.

This bear on wheels was manufactured a little later than 1895 — probably between 1900-1910, but it’s still a great example of the kind of plush pull toys that were available in the late 1800s. He is displayed in Centennial Cottage next to a handsome photograph of himself in his younger years, posing with his original owner, the son of Mrs. Christian Schmidt who lived at 148 Clark Avenue, Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

While C.C. Clayton’s department store may be long gone, Ocean Grove is still a place where charming shops abound, selling unique items you’d never find at your neighborhood Target or Bed Bath & Beyond.

This year, why not do something different? Leave the humid chaos of the malls behind and treat yourself to an afternoon of holiday shopping in “downtown” Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where bygone days seem to come alive again in glowing shop windows, alongside pretty iron lamp posts and under stamped tin ceilings.

It just might make you feel like a kid again.

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