Alaska Life

What was Anchorage like a century ago? A city with stark differences, but plenty of familiarities too

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

A simple question, what was life like in 1922 Anchorage? A century ago, the humble little railroad hub with around 2,000 residents had one police officer, publicized the rare arrivals of new library books, and was more than a decade away from having presliced bread. I reviewed the Anchorage Daily Times newspaper issues for the week before that Christmas, Dec. 18-23, to see what was happening here a hundred years in the past. Some aspects were different, and the details certainly varied, but in many ways, people then were like people now.

The machinations of the local government continued through the holidays, though their concerns are quaint compared to today. That week, the 33rd Anchorage ordinance took effect, providing penalties for the preexisting ban on curtains or other window obstructions at any of the several card rooms, pool halls, cigar stores or soft drink establishments. Violations of the ordinance carried fines of up to $100, about $1,750 in 2022 dollars, or 90 days in jail. Businesses like these were often fronts for less legal operations, including gambling, prostitution, drugs and bootlegging. The curtain ban was meant to hinder their more criminal activities by allowing views inside.

The city coffers contained only $4,767.14, about $84,000 in 2022 dollars. The council could not afford to hire another police officer, so the ordinance was their meager, next-best option. Despite their inability to employ curtains, criminals continued their operations with no noticeable impact.

Other city actions that week included the installation of a light over the ballpark ice rink and the construction of kennels for a dog pound. Ordinances debated included regulations on burning refuse, fire department service limits, fire escape requirements, fire safety inspections, alley cleaning and the storage of explosives.

The most striking revelation from those newspapers was the emphasis on negative news. Tales of racism, crime, accidents, politics, natural disasters and death dominated the front pages. Today, many Alaskans are addicted to true crime or regularly doomscroll, obsessively refreshingly their preferred news sources for updates on the most depressing of subjects. However, this appetite for negativity is nothing new.

The 1922 front-page articles included multiple stories on communities around the country cracking down on Ku Klux Klan activities. High winds blew two railroad baggage cars off the deck of a steamship and into the Gulf of Alaska. The charred bodies of two pilots were recovered from a California crash site.


On Dec. 19, the banner headline declared, “Denver Thugs Kill Guard Raid Bullion Shipment.” The previous day, four armed men brazenly robbed the Denver Mint, killing a guard, and making off with $200,000 in $5 bills, about $3.5 million in 2022 dollars. Authorities recovered $80,000 from the haul, although none of the robbers or accomplices were ever charged with the crime. In 1934, Denver Police Capt. James Clark closed the case, stating that all the robbers were either dead or serving life sentences for unrelated crimes. One of the bandits later admitted his role in the theft but refuted this claim.

The most tragic story of the week came on Dec. 23, the last newspaper published before Christmas. “Baby Victim of Burning Christmas Tree Trimmings,” blared the banner headline. While placing candles on the family Christmas tree, baby Margaret Peterson’s clothes caught fire, burning most of her body. She passed three days later.

Macabre and tragic events aside, the newspapers were also filled with notices of parties and shows. The Ladies Catholic Club hosted a card game party. On Dec. 23, students held little celebrations before embarking on a welcome 10-day vacation. Their teachers were gifted “tokens of appreciation consisting of tiny jeweled pins or brooches.” That night, there was a boxing match at Jack Robarts’ pool hall, Soldier Lewis versus the “Cook Inlet Kid” Walter Cleghorn. The outcome was a draw.

Many now-forgotten restaurants, including the Juneau Waffle House and Royal Café, offered Christmas meals. The Anchorage Bakery sold jelly doughnuts. And the North Pole Bakery threateningly offered fruitcakes of various sizes.

The Empress Theatre, Anchorage’s first movie theater, was showing “Kisses,” a silent romantic comedy centered around the titular candy. A candy kiss was then a broad term referring to a small, round confectionery not necessarily made of chocolate. Hershey’s Kisses were simply one type of candy kiss among many. While Hershey first sold their Kisses in 1907, the company did not obtain the trademark for “kisses” until 2001.

Two days before Christmas, the Elks Club hosted a dance. The Anchorage Women’s Club staged a charity ball at the Elks Hall on Christmas evening. The day after Christmas, the Elks provided a free movie for children at the Empress, with club members passing out free candy and fruit. The Elks also made arrangements to escort and return home any children whose parents could not attend.

The season’s big event was the Dec. 22 “Passing of 1922″ variety show at the Empress, staged by Anchorage’s American Legion Jack Henry Post. The production was their headliner in a fundraising campaign for a permanent Legion home. The show included a series of songs, comedy skits, dramatic scenes and a Christmas song. Tickets cost from $1 for the best seats, roughly $17.50 in 2022 dollars. By all accounts, the show was a massive success.

Those residents who wanted to visit families in the Lower 48, or take a winter vacation in warmer climes, had few travel options. Passenger flights from Alaska to the Outside were years away. The only safe option out of the territory was via a steamship, but those had already made their last stops in Anchorage for the year. Locals antsy for sunlight could still take the train to Seward, where they could board a steamer bound for Seattle.

Of course, there was also the shopping. If the Anchorage residents of a hundred years ago were less materialistic than those of today, it is only because there were fewer things to buy. As a Chovin Supply Company advertisement stated, “The spirit of giving, and not the money value of the gift is what counts.” Then they pushed their “practical gifts,” a “line of electrical servants” — or kitchen appliances, in other words.

The Daily Times editor got in on the fun by noting the apparent relationship between the winter solstice and shopping madness. “Among the unusually solaric effects will be persons of both sexes rushing frantically from store to store with bundles in their arms ... four days later this tensity of activity will be increased when some hatless, distraught man will be seen rushing into a store in an effort to purchase the present he had forgotten.” He concluded with the wise advice to “shop early!”

Every store in town ran advertisements promoting what goods they had in stock and on sale. Some of the gift offerings would be rare oddities today, like felt shoes, silk umbrellas, smoking stands and cigarette holders. However, most of the advertised goods were the sorts of things a person might be hunting for this Christmas season: jewelry, furniture, fine clothes, purses, vacuums, cookware, skates, skis, toys and coats. In a less exciting though fiscally responsible option, the Bank of Anchorage suggested, “Give yourself a Christmas present,” which meant opening a savings account. The North Pole Bakery emphasized their loaves of bread, baked fresh daily.

In many ways, 1922 Anchorage seems familiar, perhaps slower in pace yet with recognizable trends and motivations. The overwhelming and obvious lesson is that time passes. Many of the terrible things happening now will one day be forgotten, replaced by the incoherent, inevitable terrors of the future. Thus, live and strive fueled by the knowledge that the Anchorage of the past survived its many problems as will we, but similarly be inspired not to repeat the same mistakes.

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Key sources:

1922 Robbery of the US Mint in Denver.” Denver Post, April 1, 2013.

Anchorage Daily Times, December 19 through December 23, 1922.

“Little Margaret Peterson Succumbs to Her Injuries.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 27, 1922, 4.

David Reamer | Alaska history

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.