Merry Christmas, Mr. Douglass: A Photographic History of Holidays Past
Austin photographer Neal Douglass
Snyder native Neal Douglass (1900-1983) had already spent time with several newspapers when he hired on with the Austin American-Statesman in 1934. A year later he found himself attending a six-week crash course in photography at the University of Texas. After all, if he was to succeed as the first chief of the American-Statesman’s new photography department, he would have to know his way around a camera. Fortunately for those interested in preserving Austin’s history, Douglass did succeed. In fact, he mastered his new craft well enough to remain on the job for two decades before leaving the paper to open his own studio. Eight years after retiring in 1962 he donated a large part of his extensive collection of photographs to the Austin History Center. Many of these images subsequently made their way to the website of The Portal to Texas History. A handful of these were shot during Christmas seasons past. Their perusal offers an intriguing opportunity to compare our modern holiday with that of our parents and grandparents.
Here is a 1943 photo of the Captain Jack Rogers family. Notice the tinsel on the Christmas tree. I’m not sure exactly when tinsel went out of style but I do recall decorating our family tree with it in the 1960s and 1970s. As my mother constantly reminded me, you can’t just lob a handful of the stuff onto the tree; you have to lay it carefully strand by strand. Alas, I had little patience for this tedious but admittedly superior technique. Nevertheless, despite the blobs of tinsel defacing our trees, Mom always thought each year’s prettier than the last.
I have been unable to positively identify Captain Rogers and wonder if he survived World War II. For the sakes of his beautiful wife and child I hope so. Mrs. Rogers’ outfit and hairstyle certainly peg her to her era, but the little boy’s clothes would blend in well on modern playgrounds.
Next is a 1951 shot of Bob Goode posing by himself, or at least attempting to. Even back then house cats had perfected the art of strolling casually through a scene at just the wrong moment. Do people still pin Christmas cards to their trees? I haven’t seen that in while. And how about those socks! Don’t they go well with the chair?
Neal Douglass must have been quite a photographer to be able to capture a roomful of children without a single finger-filled nostril in the shot. In fact, except for a few sullen faces, this is about as good as a group of restless, fidgety kids can be. Check out the record rack atop the gigantic radio in the background. Who knew in 1951 that one day these kids would carry around all that music and more on a device that fits into a shirt pocket?
I’m sure you recognize the location of this 1947 image. But where are the big buildings? More than three decades after their construction, the Scarbrough Building and Littlefield Building remained two of the tallest skyscrapers on the Avenue, but both sit behind Dougless’ position in this photograph. At right are two recognizable landmarks in the Paramount and State Theater. I wish I could read what was playing at the Paramount.
That’s Dr. Sandi Esquivel seated in front of the tree sporting black socks in this 1952 photograph. Esquivel starred in track, cross country and basketball at the University of Texas in the 1920s. He was a track All American in 1925 and captained the Longhorn track and basketball squads in 1926. The 1924 basketball team on which he played won the Southwest Conference championship and finished the season with a perfect 23-0 record. Esquivel has been a member of the UT Hall of Honor since 1968.
I love this 1946 photograph. The little boy looks innocent enough but the girl is grinning as if she’s about to spin her head in a circle and vomit pea soup. Mom clearly just wants the whole ordeal to end while Dad appears delighted to have a marshmallow dangling over his head. Notice the idealized collection of toys beneath the tree. You still see such toys under trees in modern Christmas cards and images but really, what parent in history has ever given a large drum to a toddler? The boy’s uncle must be lurking just off camera laughing at the cleverness of his gift to his nephew.
This 1951 family Christmas gathering either took place in somebody’s tree house or involved a clan of giants. Ma and Pa have apparently just strolled in from milking the cows while the fellow in the back at least donned his nice overalls. Maybe this was the year that the family splurged and bought itself a new light fixture!
The George Betts family pictured here in 1940 sure seems proud of its heavily flocked Christmas tree. You don’t see flocked trees much anymore. I always wanted one as a kid – it looks just like snow! – but my parents were traditionalists. Hey, I would have settled for white spray-on goop! We didn’t have to have pink like the family down the street. But nooooo . . . our trees sported natural green needles just like God made ‘em. Except where the tinsel globs covered them up.
Just what are these folks up to? It’s Christmas Eve 1946 and Braniff International Airways is about to make history. You see, this here’s a turkey from Jane’s Turkey Ranch and we’re gonna put it on that plane out yonder and fly it somewhere special on Braniff but first we gotta tie this big ‘ol gift tag around its neck. Won’t Aunt Mabel be surprised? Yeah, but that fellow in the background has the look of a federal turkey inspector about to lower the hammer on the whole turkey shipping gift idea. Let’s see some ID, folks.
You thought I was joking, didn’t you?
These lucky children are evidently receiving a copy of Marshmallow for Christmas. Claire Newberry’s classic book about the friendship between a cat and a baby bunny had just hit the shelves in 1943 when this photograph was taken. That’s Judge Charles Betts, wife Eula, and the couple’s two children gathered round the tree.
Austin mayor Bill Drake passes out treats to the kiddies as Santa Claus in this 1951 photograph. Mayor Drake could have used a bit more faux facial hair and a pillow or two stuffed underneath his Santa suit. And can anyone tell me why the girl at left is sporting what appears to be a basket on her head?
By 1955 Santa appears to have foregone his sleigh in favor of a ride on Continental Airlines. No word on whether Rudolph and gang made the trip. I wonder if Santa upgraded or stayed in coach. Either way, think of the frequent flyer miles he racked up!
Notice anything in this 1947 photo of the nativity scene at St. Ignatius Martyr Church? Snow! Sure, the grass pokes through in several spots but that’s the real white stuff in Austin, Texas! One thing for certain, though, I’d never let a camel get that close to my baby.
No party in 1950s Austin would have been complete without the sweet sounds of the Vic E. Sterzing Band! A bookkeeper for a quarry company by day, Sterzing moonlighted by night as leader of an elegantly-dressed musical ensemble complete with torch singer. I’m not sure which one is Vic but the man behind the seated woman has the look of being in charge. Sterzing died in 1992 at the ripe age of 84.
There you have it, Austin Christmas past courtesy of Neal Douglass. The entire Douglass collection consists of over 55,000 images housed at the Austin History Center. Merry Christmas, Mr. Douglass, and thank you.