Christmas shopping on Oxford Street
By the Survey of London, on 18 December 2015
The Survey of London not only records the architectural history and development of each area that we work on, but draws out the character of that area both in the past and as it has become today. In Oxford Street that character is defined above all by its shops, and Christmas is its busiest time of the year. A couple of weeks ago we asked Lucy Millson-Watkins to photograph the lights, sights and decorations of Christmas on Oxford Street in 2015. Here follows a selection of the photographs that she took, with a few views from the 1950s on the same theme, showing how much – or how little – things have changed.
The throngs of traffic and shoppers at this time of the year have been newsworthy for well over a century. In December 1882 The New York Times commented on the streets in the West End being more than usually crowded, the shops and stores full of ‘wonders of nature and art, sweetmeats and fruits from every clime, toys and magic surprises of all imaginable shapes and inventions, Christmas cards designed by famous pencils, books for children that are art treasures’. 
‘Christmas shops’ within the larger department stores are also nothing new. In 1909 Warings on Oxford Street created a display which aimed to make the task of choosing a Christmas gift comparatively easy by arranging ‘practically on one floor, suitable articles from their various departments … Silver, lace, bronze, clocks, glass and china, pictures, musical instruments, furniture and fancy articles of every description.’  Not to be outdone, the following year Peter Robinsons was advertising ‘Arcadia’ its ‘grand xmas bazaar’: ‘don’t let the children miss it’. 
There are grumbles about how early in the year decorations and displays of Christmas gifts appear in the shops, but it seems even that is not new. According to The New York Times, in the mid 1920s Christmas shopping was unthinkable in the United States before Thanksgiving, and it was not really until mid-December that ‘the Christmas fever germ begins to “take” in America’. By contrast, in London ‘everything from orchids and knitting needles to vintage wines and bath salts may be purchased on the afternoon of Armistice Day’ and packages for India and the Far East were posted out soon afterwards.  Perhaps therein lies a part of the explanation for our unseasonably early habits.
During the Second World War the blackout, and later rationing, had obvious effects, as also did bomb-damage – notably on John Lewis’s. On the run up to the first Christmas of the war there was a proposal to erect a light-proof arcade along Oxford Street for night-time window shopping. It was to have comprised a thick solid roof, stretching out over the curb, and heavy canvas screens which could be drawn aside during the day. As yet, we have not discovered if the arcade was built. 
After the war things slowly returned to normal. In 1949 although turkeys were scarce, coconuts made their appearance in the shops for the first time since the war. There were dense crowds of shoppers in Bond Street and Oxford Street, restaurants and hotels reported record bookings at gala dinners, but the main attraction was the giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, the gift of Norway: ‘its coloured lights, surrounded by floodlit fountains, make a picturesque spectacle’. 
‘All gay for the Christmas season’ announced the South China Sunday Post Herald in December 1959. This was the first year that Oxford Street was adorned with decorations running from one end to the other: ‘symbolic Christmas trees, hung with tinsel and lit with coloured bulbs’ ornamented the lamp standards down the centre of the street. 
Lights had been put up in Regent Street in 1954, and in the following year some of the Oxford Street stores applied to extend the decorations to include Oxford Circus but Marylebone Council would not allow it because of the possibility, however slight, of an accident. The Council also banned decorations suspended between buildings.
The stores kept applying, with a more ambitious scheme in 1958 for an ‘Archway of Light’ all along Oxford Street from St Giles’ Circus to Marble Arch (excluding Oxford Circus), but this too was turned down. One of the problems was the traffic chaos, but the Council’s fears of a decoration-related accident proved sadly well founded when early on New Year’s Day a man walking past the Cumberland Hotel in Oxford Street had an unfortunate encounter with a falling 20ft-high revolving Christmas decoration. 
- New York Times, 4 Jan 1882, p.2
- The Observer, 5 Dec 1909, p.17
- The Observer, 20 Nov 1910, p.18
- New York Times, 13 Dec 1925, p.24
- The Sun, Baltimore, 7 Dec 1939, p.14
- South China Sunday Post, 25 Dec 1949, p.7
- South China Sunday Post Herald, 20 Dec 1959, p.22
- The Times, 27 May 1957, p.6; 20 Dec 1958, p.6; 7 Jan 1959, p.4