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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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German Santa postcard, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Rosemary McKittrick.
Driving a truck for "Breakfast Cheer Coffee Company" in Pittsburgh some 60 years ago, my dad told me stories about the kitchens he delivered coffee to on “millionaires row” during Christmas week.

At daybreak in the Old Allegheny section of town when the deep freeze of winter unveiled itself, Dad was already at the back door of mansions on Ridge Ave.

Light, heat and the smell of warm rolls and hot coffee greeted him in the huge, bustling kitchens. One mansion had 90 rooms.

The cooks were busy preparing feasts including goose and Christmas cookies for late-day celebrations.

With little time to waste, Dad enjoyed his snack and moment of reprieve before braving the cold and moving onto his next delivery.

Christmas week in Old Allegheny at the turn-of-the-century was an exciting time. Shop owners decorated their windows with pine boughs and holly wreaths studded with red berries and garlands. The flashing lights may have been missing, but the flavor of Christmas was everywhere.

The smell of anise cakes and gingerbread men moistened the air outside the German bakeries. Cookies in the shape of St. Nick, lions, tigers, dogs and angels lined the cases in the store window.

Shoppers browsed the shelves of F.R. Jackson’s wholesale liquor store on Federal St. They could purchase a quart of blended whiskey and a bottle of wine in a Persian cut-glass decanter for 75 cents.

Liquor barrels lining the wall offered free samples.

In 1898, Carnegie Library in Old Allegheny served as the Christmas tree market. Pines imported from the forests of Wisconsin, and the mountains near Somerset, Pa., sold for $1-$10.

On Dec. 15, 1898, Boggs & Buhl department store on Federal St., offered specials, including: lace bed sheets, $1.35-$6. Full size ready hemmed Crochet quilts in Marseilles patterns, 85 cents. Ladies’ silk mittens, 35 cents. Men’s mink fur gloves, $4.

There were no cash registers in the store. Money was placed into a cup attached to an overhead wire. The cup traveled to the office via a trolley and people waited for their change to return the same way.

“Your husband has been admiring those $1.75 slippers in our window,” said the sign in R. Hay & Sons window at 126-127 Federal St., during Christmas week in 1890.

“Price cut to $1.30 while the lot lasts. Don’t blame us if you’re too slow, we’ve done our part.”

Late Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bill Rimmel wrote of Christmas in Old Allegheny, where sidewalk peddlers on one corner sold holiday decorations, another, candles and holly wreaths. He told of the medicine men in the neighborhood who traded in their cure-alls to sell musical tops, toy monkeys and jack-in-the-boxes.

Like today, Christmas came and went with shopping and the sharing of good food and good company.

“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together,” said author Garrison Keillor.


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