Every year during the rush of holiday shopping, laments can be heard about the commercialization of Christmas and the overt consumerism visible everywhere. But as we’ve posted before, this trend is not really as new as many people might think. The second half of the nineteenth century was bursting with ads, images, and even games and music about consumption.
A favorite example that we’ve pulled out for programs on several occasions is this piece of 1870 sheet music titled “Father Will Settle the Bill.” In it, the singer takes a jaunt through a store, first buying a dress, then a bonnet, followed by a ring and gaiters. The lace and fan she sees on her way out she prudently puts off until tomorrow. She puts each purchase on her father’s tab, insisting that he will settle the bill. A spry waltz in a major key, the tune is meant to be light and funny, a satirical take on an everyday middle-class occurrence. Flip through the music to read all of the lyrics:
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Music in the nineteenth century was a very popular entertainment in the home, performed most commonly on a piano accompanied by vocals. A song such as this—the nineteenth-century version of pop music—would have been mixed in among more classical and operatic selections and would have provided an element of fun and humor.
But lest we think that the topic was only a stereotype without any basis in fact, other items in our collections intimate that there was a level of truth behind it. An 1827 daybook from Ainsworth and Smith, a general store in East Westminster, Vermont, includes several entries of girls buying articles for themselves and placing it on their fathers’ tabs. Among the entries for June 11, for example, is one for Robert Ladd that includes side combs, calico, and tea “for daughter.” Beneath that entry is another for Moses Bailey, whose daughter purchased a skein of blue thread. Today it may be a credit card belonging to either parent, rather than the father’s store account, but the story remains a familiar one.
Nor is the choice of topic for the song unrelated to modern pop music. Madonna’s “Material Girl” follows a similar track to “Father Will Settle the Bill,” except that she expects her lover to pay, rather than her father. On the flip side, Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” is still about buying all of the clothes, shoes, and jewelry they want, but now being able to do so on their own account, without the help of a man footing the bill. From the male perspective, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” takes a different approach, humorously bragging about how stylish they can be while spending as little money as possible. And those are just to name a few examples.
The constant bargain-hunting, jostling of crowds, and expense of holiday shopping can be demoralizing, but crank up (or try playing) one of these tunes, and your last-minute shopping experience will suddenly seem more cheerful.