Great Land History: From a Tent City Christmas Album 1916

Anchorage, Alaska: Tent City in the Runup to Christmas 1916

[Moonlight image Anchorage to be replaced]


No other part of the earth known to man surpasses Alaska in imposing and beautiful scenery.–John Muir

The city of Anchorage, located in the Southcentral region of Alaska, lies within a bowl along the Cook Inlet and is overlooked by the Chugach mountains to the east. Although Russians had an established presence in the 19th century, Alaska Geographic notes settlements of the Dena’ina people, possibly as early as 500 AD (Volume 23, Number 1).

[Shem Pete image to be replaced]

The late Dena’ina elder Shem Pete remembered seeing the tents of Anchorage for the first time in 1914 (AG). The white tents had begun to spring up in response to talk–and later confirmation–of a western route selected for construction of a federal railroad from Seward, south of Anchorage on the Kenai (Kee-nigh) Peninsula, to the region of Alaska known as the Interior. This tent city was located under a bluff now known as Government Hill, and rested on land subject to siltation and vulnerable during earthquakes. By June of 1915, according to Michael Carberry quoted in AG, “more than 2,000 souls packed the short-lived settlement.”

[Alaska tent city images to be replaced]

Though it was 1920 before Anchorage became incorporated, men looking for work didn’t wait around to establish lives in their new location. After a short time it was determined that more women and families were needed and indeed they came. Conditions were harsh but life was conducted and the people of Anchorage wasted little time isolating themselves. The Pioneer-News (later Anchorage Daily Times) published its first issue in May of 1915. Perusals of the ADT‘s archives by late 1916 show a people who remembered their origins, but looked forward to the future and where they were then, which included living life as typically as they would anywhere else. Adverts are seen in the issues of the day for bowling alleys, pool parlors, cafes, hotels, barber shops, photo studios, furniture, sweets, banking, cigars, candies and fruits, auto service, lumber, druggists, packing companies, toys, books, periodicals, glassware and more.

They also wished to keep up with goings-on in the world, especially as by this time the Great War was raging around the world. As Christmas 1916 approached the people of Anchorage lived a sort of dual life: attempting to maintain standards and create satisfying lives whilst simultaneously coping with hardship and bad news.

Front page for December 19, 1916
Front page for December 19, 1916

In an article two days following that in the image above, “Dainty female hands are now making shells,” the journalist writes of women in previously male-only industries and presents a cautionary tale of sorts:

Hands are now making
Who knows, oh Tommy Atkins
As you throw that hand grenade
Perhaps it’s one of many
That your wife or sweetheart made

It being in the best interests of pioneers, however, to look for the sweet side of life when they could, they did this, and the business agents of Anchorage took the lead. As Christmas approached and citizens prepared, the business community offered sales and prizes, enticed consumers with the scents of a delicious meal and sought to entertain. Following are images in the days just before Christmas 1916, as Anchoragites looked forward to a joyful Christmas and the end of the war.


Above: At top can be seen “Loussac’s Daily Gossip,” the name coming from Zachariah J. Loussac, a Russian Jew who had fled Czarist Russia, settling in Anchorage after first staying in several other Alaska towns. Loussac later served two terms as mayor and the city’s library was named for him. Below is an ad extolling the virtues of Kodaks–photography was still relatively new at this time–ranging in price from $3.00 to $67.50, a Conklin fountain pen, Victrolas and “some” toys (possibly the first of items to sell out). Perhaps the adman saved best for last: Many Alaskans would own a book of poems by Robert Service.



Colonial women were as eager for silk underwear as any of the spoiled ladies of the French Court. They prized it enough to bequeath it in their wills. What did they have in Silk Underwear? Practically everything that we have. Vests, Bloomers, Corset-Covers, Nightdresses, Envelope Chemise, Petticoats, Hosiery, Negligee and Boudoir Caps. Pink was the prevailing color for them, so it is for us today, and the ladies of Anchorage appreciate the good things as well as the ladies of the Court days. So what is more befitting that you should give my lady at Xmas time than some silk underwear? Our sweaters are the best to be had. Some have caps to match. Purses, vanity cases and fancywork boxes, also children’s purses. Rich novelty ribbons for fancy wear. A full line of art needle work. Beautiful silk and wool dress patterns. A new shipment of gents’ ties just received. All suits and millinery greatly reduced. Come and see for yourself.

VARIOUS_ADSAs can be evidenced by the origins and names of those settling in Anchorage, diversity was a draw from the beginning. Athans & Pappadopolos, left, is one example. (Today over 90 languages are spoken in Anchorage alone.) It is unclear if women in a billiards advert (middle column) was considered unusual or racy, as it would have been back East, but it is so that women advanced in Anchorage (and Alaska in general) faster than their counterparts in the United States. By this time women already were part of universal suffrage in Alaska, the change coming as the Territorial Legislature’s first act, the body of which acknowledged that women had proven their strength and support in the development of Alaska–no small feat given the monumental difficulties of life on this frontier.


The Harmony Theatre as well as the Empress advertised heavily in the Anchorage Daily Times, with a pleasant array of titles for cinema-goers: The Factory Magdalan; Queenie of the Nile; The Vengeance of Wu Fang and Key to Yesterday were but some of the films offered at Harmony.

Empress drew movie buffs with the likes of The Crucible; Best of Enemies; Cross Currents and The Sign of the Cross.

The two theaters wore their pride in advertising when announcing smashed attendance records. In this particular ad: Sapho and late war news from France drew over 1,000 viewers to three shows. Aside from the war news, people were likely very pleased to be entertained after long, cold work days.


The Empress scored a coup, as we say today, by bagging a copy of Civilization, “the picture that amazed, staggered and astounded New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other large cities. Acclaimed by press and public to be the most gigantic and thrilling masterpiece of cinema history.” Empress goes out of its way to communicate the large cost of securing this film. Indeed, even with trains now running goods to and from Seattle and imports coming the rest of the way by boat, everything then, as today, was much more costly.


As with others, the language of this advert running two days before Christmas
absolutely charmed this amateur historian. While fruits and vegetables such as
green peppers, cucumbers, cranberries and pomegranates are common
in present-day ‘muni markets (though still expensive or, “spendy,” as they
say in Anchorage), in wartime 1916 they could be hard to come by and
themselves a source of celebration. Canned or tinned fruit was popular
and fashionable, and some grocers enticed shoppers with boasts of stocking
Del Monte and Libby brands.

December 23, 1916:



We as distant observers recognize the extreme importance of the following two days to people of the era based on what is not there as well as what we have been seeing in our tracking of public life via one contemporary media outlet. In the silence that follows–for the news went unpublished on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as publishers and citizens celebrated with their families the birth of Jesus–there is a sense of solemnity, a somewhat shocking void as they disappear from view for two whole days. Perhaps they experienced a similar withdrawal as they would not have had any news–or at least not as much news–of the war and other events Outside.

What we do know is that they soldiered on, continuing to create what became home for those of Anchorage today as they gave us the ability to look back and see that what drove them impacted and inspired us. This small bit of Anchorage lives presented here is but one snapshot in a much larger album flowing through memories set down in so many places and coursing through our very beings. As we look to the few days ahead counting down to Christmas 2013, nearly 100 years later, this labor of love is offered as a tribute and a thank you to those who broke trail for us.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Many thanks also to librarians Jill, Samantha and Charlotte at the Z.J. Loussac Library’s Alaska Collection for their assistance with documents and navigation.

This post previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.

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