In the bleakness of 1932, a 10-year-old girl penned a letter to Santa in her neatest cursive, addressing it to the Briggs Hardware Store on Fayetteville Street – a child’s equivalent of the North Pole.
On thick brown paper with spaces half an inch apart, Mildred Rogers presented her humble wish list: a scooter, an umbrella – “so I can go to school on rainey mornings” – and some help for the poor.
“I am 10 years old,” she reminded St. Nicholas, “so I want you to get the scooter large enough.”
Her hopeful note and 20 others recently found daylight after 85 years, tidings from Christmas past. They resurfaced inside the pages of a thick account book from Briggs Hardware, where they had been tucked since the worst year of the Great Depression.
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When the N.C. Archives received the books, a collection of the Raleigh store’s sales from 1865 to 1920, the children’s envelopes tumbled out.
“I think someone at Briggs just hid them and stuck them in an account book,” said Lea Walker, an archivist. “It’s almost like a portable file.”
The children asked for shoes, raincoats, fruits and nuts – modest requests in the leanest of years. Many make pleas for more destitute children, and ask for air rifles almost apologetically, laying on flattery and making elaborate promises.
“We all know you are a jolly fellow,” wrote A.C. Allen.
“I will go to sleep every evening like Alice wants me to so she can get a chance to breathe,” pledged a boy named Billy, who tapped out his list on a typewriter.
The letters, part of the archives’ private manuscript collection, send questions across the decades along with a view to yuletide history. Why, for example, are these letters bound for Santa buried in the records of a hardware store?
Walker explains that account books often served as crude filing cabinets, and treasures spill out of their pages decades later. Hardware stores, Briggs in particular, sold bicycles and sleds along with their hammers and nails, making it likely someone who worked there invited children to share holiday wishes.
“I grew up in a small town, and we always got our gifts at the hardware store,” Walker said. “Your first bike.”
The boy who wanted a cowboy suit would have seen it in a Fayetteville Street shop window, just down from the theater showing a Tom Mix western. The girl who wished for a doll would have seen it on Briggs’ shelves, and if her parents could spare the money, could have had it wrapped there.
None of the children listed more than a few items, their letters mostly confined to a few lines. If Santa were to visit, they knew, he would be traveling light. In her letter, Mildred Rogers set the example.
“I want you to have enough for the other children,” she wrote, “and of all things don’t forget the poor.”