- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
A Christmas comet, of sorts, burst upon the city of Aurora in the 1950s. For just a few years it vividly illuminated the city and her people at Christmas time before fading gently away, never to be seen again.
The comet was Men’s Night in downtown Aurora.
In the late 1940s, as the country recuperated from World War II, downtown Aurora was a thriving retail center where shoppers found goods that had been unavailable or in short supply for years.
Nylon stockings were back in stock, as were electrical goods and household appliances. Prices were higher, the newspapers reported, but customers were willing to pay.
Only one line of goods showed a decrease. That was cosmetics, which during the war years had zoomed in popularity as other merchandise became scarce. No matter, with or without lipstick, in 1947 the sales total for Christmas shopping in downtown Aurora was $5 million.
The big commercial news in town was that, from mid-December onward, stores planned to stay open until 9 p.m. Two crews from the city’s Parks Department worked overnight on the city’s street lamps to hang garlands with red berries and 5-foot Christmas trees in red pots.
The decorations, enthusiastically referred to as a Christmas Tree Forest, were paid for by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.
By 1952, the Chamber of Commerce had something else to talk about: Santa Claus. He arrived downtown on a December Saturday afternoon, resplendent in his sleigh and accompanied by 20 police officers to handle traffic.
For the rest of the season, the sleigh was relocated each day to a location either on Broadway or on Fox Street (now Downer Place), where children could visit him while on shopping trips with parents.
Santa became a downtown tradition over the years, with some variations. One year he arrived on the Burlington train at 9:50 in the morning and departed on the 4:30 p.m. train for points west. He spent the day touring stores in downtown, using his “scout sleigh,” which was explained as the small one he uses for pre-Christmas scouting.
But it was on Dec. 11, 1953, that the figurative comet appeared, and Aurora became a national trend-setter in the business of holiday shopping.
The Chamber of Commerce, Retail Merchants Division, added a “men only” Friday evening to their calendar. Scheduled from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m., the event was a notable success.
A Beacon-News reporter took a street poll and reported that “men were for the idea 100 percent. According to most men, it’s high time merchants stopped catering only to the women and started buttering up to the breadwinner, who digs for the tabs in the final showdown.”
Another writer put it this way: “Thousands of men, released from the confines of their homes, stormed stores in downtown Aurora last night as merchants staged the first ‘Men’s Night’ … in the history of the city. Stores of all types experienced a rush, which, said one merchant, ‘We haven’t seen since Dollar Day.’ ”
The family-friendly concept of Men’s Night as a chance to buy a wife a gift that could stay a surprise until Christmas morning was, in the way of advertising everywhere, adjusted to sound a touch naughty.
A Beacon report offered the following speculation, no doubt provided by the organizers: “Rumor has it that several of the merchants are planning to hang mistletoe in their stores to allow male shoppers to get better acquainted with pretty clerks. … Some of the merchants have admitted that their clerks are looking forward to Men’s Night. Why, has not been disclosed.”
The behavior of wives on shopping trips also came in for some commentary by the organizers, with one writer reporting “the important thing is that the ‘little woman’ won’t be beetle-browing and tongue-lashing the hubby around the store in the Christmas shopping race.”
National publicity and coverage in the Wall Street Journal followed, as did requests from other cities where retailers wanted to learn how to appeal to their own male customers.
With so much success, the return of Men’s Night was assured for 1954, and movie trailers as well as television and radio advertising were rolled out.
Additional stores signed on for the second Men’s Night, which was extended by half an hour to 9:30 p.m. and brought the total of retailers to 57. The add-ons were the Aurorette Shop, Bill’s Hat Shop, Franch’s Pant Shop, Kleinert’s, Ward and Jones, and Weil’s.
A big increase in sales was predicted by the organizers as “husbands and beaus succumb to the charm of beautiful blonds, blue-eyed brunettes, and other comely lasses who will man the counters during the male invasion.”
The predictions of success on the second go-round were right. One store on Broadway reported triple the visitation over the previous year, handing out 2,500 door prize slips.
According to The Beacon-News, “enterprising merchants offered discounts, premiums, and in one case, a fashion show that had men lined up on the sidewalk to get in.” Who could blame the Aurora male for embracing this opportunity?
The crowds, however, slowed traffic to a snail’s pace, a problem that was quickly blamed on the wives who, the newspaper said, “with their offspring nestled beside them in the family car, toured the downtown area trying to get a glimpse of the goings-on.”
A handful of women even picketed the event, wearing signboards claiming the sale was “Unfair to Women Shoppers,” although hints were given to the press that the women were volunteers recruited to add color to the evening.
The Men’s Night promotion carried on for several more years.
In 1957, 45 merchants participated. The assistant manager of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, Randy Bricher, boasted that “We’ll have a few policemen and some of the more brawny salesmen stationed at the doors to keep the ladies out.”
He promised the Aurora male would find “a carefree, relaxed atmosphere in which to perform his Christmas shopping chores without harassment by the female sex.”
It was that year that a Beacon-News reporter asked Bricher to explain the chamber’s theory that women harass people. His response was cautious.
“Well, I’ll tell you — It’s hard to describe!” he said.
But, to the careful listener, there was the unmistakable sound of the air going out of a narrative.
Just two years later, the Chamber of Commerce had changed its tune about women and was actually partnering with the Aurora chapter of the American Association of University Women to put on the next, newest thing in Christmas promotions, an expo of local merchants titled “What’s New for the Holidays.”
For 50 cents, Christmas shoppers could enjoy entertainment and refreshments at the Masonic Temple while browsing and placing orders at the displays of 40-plus downtown merchandisers.
The 1960s were dawning. American social structure was evolving and changes in real estate tax law were already paving the way for the modern shopping mall.
The best in Christmas shopping would no longer be a special Friday night when streets and stores were kept free of women by brawny bouncers, while beleaguered husbands shopped ‘til they dropped.
That much has changed, but the Christmas comet imagery still has legitimacy. It’s just that, in 2018, the comet bears more resemblance to the smiling visage of Amazon sailing through the sky, accompanied by a symphony of keyboard clicks.
In the age of Cyber Monday, shopping privacy and ease are assured to the men.
… But the pictures in future history archives won’t be nearly as interesting.
About the Aurora Historical Society
In continuous operation since 1906, the Aurora Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the Chicago area. Come tour the 1857 Tanner House, visit changing exhibits at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center or make an appointment to do research at the History Center. aurorahistory.net
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