Throwback Thursday: Cell Phones

It’s almost 2015. Smart phones are sweeping the country: we have the Internet at our fingertips, GPS navigation to tell us which way we’re going and which way to go, text messaging, video messaging, and so much more. Phones can create WiFi hotspots for our other devices, play games, play movies, and stay charged for hours. We hardly think twice about having the ability to call someone any time of day we might need to.

In 1995, just about 20 years ago when pay phones still dotted streets nationwide, cellular telephones were still as large as house phones (and looked pretty much the same, too), and nowhere near as commonplace as personal phones are today. And the Children’s Museum, only a few years settled into our current location on Free Street and several years before the merger with the Children’s Theatre, was hosting cell phone workshops. These workshops, taught by a special guest and science teacher, helped teach children how sound travels, how the human ear works, and how technology had evolved to bring us the sophisticated cell phones of 1995. Admission was $4.

Image by a local third-grade student, run for our ad in the Casco Bay Weekly.
Image by a local third-grade student, run for our ad for the program in the Casco Bay Weekly in January 1995.

Holidays, Special Days, Winter Days

It’s December! It’s hard not to think of the holidays with all the snow we’ve gotten so far, and of course, there’s lots to celebrate. Here at the Museum & Theatre, we love a mix of traditions and new celebrations, and we’re excited to share some holiday and winter-themed cheer with you.

Hanukkah may not start this year until the evening of December 16th, but we’re celebrating this festival of lights early, with Dreidel Play today December 3rd, and an hour-long Hanukkah Celebration on Saturday, December 13th starting at 2pm. Join us to make your own menorah and sing festive Hanukkah songs! (We’ll be playing dreidel again on December 21st, too.)

We’ve even created our own special day this year: Winter Animal Day! We’re so excited about our holiday show, Beatrix Potter’s Christmas, that we’re all about animals lately. From tame bunnies to wild deer, we’ll be taking a look at different animals all month, and celebrating the animals of winter all day on December 20th. (Join us for a 1pm or 4pm performance of Beatrix Potter’s Christmas that day for extra animal fun!)

And of course, we can’t have the holidays at the Museum & Theatre without our annual New Years at Noon! PJ Party. One of the staples of our holiday programming, the New Years at Noon! party is a fun, festive way to ring in the new year… well before midnight, with a multi-balloon drop at noon. We’re also celebrating at 2pm with hat-making and some quieter activities, if that’s more your style.

However you like to celebrate the holidays, we hope you’ll join us! We love spreading the joy of the season.

Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: Traditions, Games and More from Victorian England

The holidays are here, and we are delighted to share our new production of Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: a look back at the childhood of children’s book author Beatrix Potter and the animals that inspired her illustrations and stories. In the show, Beatrix longs for a festive Christmas celebration… but exactly what kind of Christmas would a little girl in the Victorian era be celebrating?

The Victorian era is so named for Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. Beatrix Potter was born in 1866, and was growing up in a time when many Christmas traditions we know today were becoming popular throughout England and America.

Christmas Cards:

Do you send Christmas cards to your friends and family? This is one tradition begun by the Victorians. The first department stores in London, like Harrods and Bainbridge’s, date back to the 1830s and were thriving businesses by the late 19th century when Beatrix was young, and carried mass-produced illustrated cards that bore Christmas and New Year greetings – they rapidly grew in popularity during this time and the tradition continued into the 20th century.

Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram designed, printed and sold their own Christmas cards in the 1890s, featuring fantastical animals like the mice and rabbits she is seen sketching in our holiday show.

A Christmas greeting card designed by Beatrix Potter.


Christmas Trees, Ornaments, and Presents

O, Christmas Tree, O, Christmas Tree – do you  know the song? Maybe even the German version, O Tannenbaum? The Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, was a German tradition beginning as early as the 1500s, but was adopted into English Christmas tradition in the 1840s and 50s after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who was from Germany, brought the tradition to the palace! Queen Victoria was known for making many things fashionable, from clothes to decor, and by the 1870s Christmas ornaments were being mass produced and sold in department stores. Families would decorate their own Christmas trees with nuts and candy, ribbons, candles, ornaments, and tinsel. We’ve switched to electric lights instead of candles these days, but many of us still put stars or angels on the tops of our trees, just like people did in Beatrix Potter’s time.

Christmas presents were made and purchased, wrapped with care, and hung from the tree or placed beneath it. Presents were symbols of well-wishing, and the most cherished were those made by hand, like a crocheted or knitted scarf – something one of the animals in our play gives to another!


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree at Windsor Palace.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.


Games and Toys

Children and adults alike enjoyed playing games during Christmas. Beatrix’s housekeeper, Jane, mentions playing snapdragon, an English and American traditional game of quickly eating raisins out of hot Christmas pudding. (The game faded out during the early 20th century – the raisins were just too hot!) Children also played guessing games – such as what we know as “I Spy” with decorations on the tree – and played a game of trimming (decorating) the tree while blindfolded.

And everyone loved Christmas crackers. These aren’t the crackers we eat with slices of cheese… these are toys wrapped up bonbon style that pop when you pull them open! They contain small toys, paper crowns, and notes or riddles, but like “blind box” toys, you never know what color or style you’re going to get till you pop open the cracker. The tradition is not very widely practiced in America today, but is still popular in England.

A Victorian advertisement for Tom Smith’s Surprise Crackers – Tom Smith was a sweetmaker who created and began selling crackers in the 1840s, and the Tom Smith company still makes Christmas crackers today!


Caroling and Parties

How many Christmas carols do you know? Carols are mostly sprightly, festive tunes (though some are slower and more somber) that ring in the joy of the season. Many of the songs we still sing today, like Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls!, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Joy to the World were all popular during the Victorian era, and this was also the heyday of caroling door to door.

Beatrix looks out her window on festive Christmas carolers in a few scenes in our play (there are some animal carolers, too!), trying to hear the music. Carolers traveled in groups, playing instruments, singing, and selling sheet music. Having parlor instruments was becoming more and more commonplace among the middle class, not just the upper class, and people were playing pianos, violins, harps, and other instruments at home to liven up the house for the holidays or for entertaining at parties, so buying sheet music from a caroler on the street was a pretty great idea! Carolers went door to door and through the streets, livening up an evening for shoppers and partygoers.


Victorian Christmas carolers.
Victorian Christmas carolers, with sheet music for The Wassail Song.

Beatrix’s parents, Rupert and Helen, were well-to-do and attended several Christmas parties as part of their social station. This was an expectation of them as it was for many upper-class Londoners, so while some families enjoyed presents and games, the Potters may have heard a carol or two, but their parties were more about seeing and being seen in high society. But it’s the sprightly carols, decorations and games that Beatrix wants in her seasonal celebrations.


To see exactly how Beatrix, her brother Bertram, and all the animal friends of their real life and imaginations celebrate Christmas, join us for Beatrix Potter’s Christmas, beginning on December 11th and running through December 22nd!