The Little Dollar's Christmas Journey by Jacob A. Riis
It is too bad, said Mrs. Lee, and she put down the magazine in
which she had been reading of the poor children in the tenements of the
great city that know little of Christmas joys; no Christmas tree! One
of them shall have one, at any rate. I think this will buy it, and it
is so handy to send. Nobody would know that there was money in the
letter. And she enclosed a coupon in a letter to a professor, a friend
in the city, who, she knew, would have no trouble in finding the child,
and had it mailed at once. Mrs. Lee was a widow whose not too great
income was derived from the interest on some four per cent government
bonds which represented the savings of her husband's life of toil, that
was none the less hard because it was spent in a counting-room and not
with shovel and spade. The coupon looked for all the world like a
dollar bill, except that it was so small that a baby's hand could
easily cover it. The United States, the printing on it said, would pay
on demand to the bearer one dollar; and there was a number on it, just
as on a full-grown dollar, that was the number of the bond from which
it had been cut.
The letter travelled all night, and was tossed and sorted and
bunched at the end of its journey in the great gray beehive that never
sleeps, day or night, and where half the tears and joys of the land,
including this account of the little dollar, are checked off
unceasingly as first-class matter or second or third, as the case may
be. In the morning it was laid, none the worse for its journey, at the
professor's breakfast plate. The professor was a kindly man, and he
smiled as he read it. To procure one small Christmas tree for a poor
tenement, was its errand.
Little dollar, he said, I think I know where you are needed. And
he made a note in his book. There were other notes there that made him
smile again as he saw them. They had names set opposite them. One about
a Noah's ark was marked Vivi. That was the baby; and there was one
about a doll's carriage that had the words Katie, sure, set over
against it. The professor eyed the list in mock dismay.
How ever will I do it? he sighed, as he put on his hat.
Well, you will have to get Santa Claus to help you, John, said his
wife, buttoning his greatcoat about him. And, mercy! the duckses'
babies! don't forget them, whatever you do. The baby has been talking
about nothing else since he saw them at the store, the old duck and the
two ducklings on wheels. You know them, John?
But the professor was gone, repeating to himself as he went down the
garden walk, The duckses' babies, indeed! He chuckled as he said it,
why I cannot tell. He was very particular about his grammar, was the
professor, ordinarily. Perhaps it was because it was Christmas eve.
Down town went the professor; but instead of going with the crowd
that was setting toward Santa Claus's headquarters, in the big Broadway
store, he turned off into a quieter street, leading west. It took him
to a narrow thoroughfare, with five-story tenements frowning on either
side, where the people he met were not so well dressed as those he had
left behind, and did not seem to be in such a hurry of joyful
anticipation of the holiday. Into one of the tenements he went, and,
groping his way through a pitch-dark hall, came to a door way back, the
last one to the left, at which he knocked. An expectant voice said,
Come in, and the professor pushed open the door.
The room was very small, very stuffy, and very dark, so dark that a
smoking kerosene lamp that burned on a table next the stove hardly
lighted it at all, though it was broad day. A big, unshaven man, who
sat on the bed, rose when he saw the visitor, and stood uncomfortably
shifting his feet and avoiding the professor's eye. The latter's glance
was serious, though not unkind, as he asked the woman with the baby if
he had found no work yet.
No, she said, anxiously coming to the rescue, not yet; he was
waitin' for a recommend. But Johnnie had earned two dollars running
errands, and, now there was a big fall of snow, his father might get a
job of shovelling. The woman's face was worried, yet there was a
cheerful note in her voice that somehow made the place seem less
discouraging than it was. The baby she nursed was not much larger than
a middle-sized doll. Its little face looked thin and wan. It had been
very sick, she explained, but the doctor said it was mending now. That
was good, said the professor, and patted one of the bigger children on
There were six of them, of all sizes, from Johnnie, who could run
errands, down. They were busy fixing up a Christmas tree that half
filled the room, though it was of the very smallest. Yet, it was a real
Christmas tree, left over from the Sunday-school stock, and it was
dressed up at that. Pictures from the colored supplement of a Sunday
newspaper hung and stood on every branch, and three pieces of colored
glass, suspended on threads that shone in the smoky lamplight, lent
color and real beauty to the show. The children were greatly tickled.
John put it up, said the mother, by way of explanation, as the
professor eyed it approvingly. There ain't nothing to eat on it. If
there was, it wouldn't be there a minute. The childer be always
a-searchin' in it.
But there must be, or else it isn't a real Christmas tree, said
the professor, and brought out the little dollar. This is a dollar
which a friend gave me for the children's Christmas, and she sends her
love with it. Now, you buy them some things and a few candles, Mrs.
Ferguson, and then a good supper for the rest of the family. Good
night, and a Merry Christmas to you. I think myself the baby is getting
better. It had just opened its eyes and laughed at the tree.
The professor was not very far on his way toward keeping his
appointment with Santa Claus before Mrs. Ferguson was at the grocery
laying in her dinner. A dollar goes a long way when it is the only one
in the house; and when she had everything, including two cents' worth
of flitter-gold, four apples, and five candles for the tree, the grocer
footed up her bill on the bag that held her potatoesninety-eight
cents. Mrs. Ferguson gave him the little dollar.
What's this? said the grocer, his fat smile turning cold as he
laid a restraining hand on the full basket. That ain't no good.
It's a dollar, ain't it? said the woman, in alarm. It's all
right. I know the man that give it to me.
It ain't all right in this store, said the grocer, sternly. Put
them things back. I want none o' that.
The woman's eyes filled with tears as she slowly took the lid off
the basket and lifted out the precious bag of potatoes. They were
waiting for that dinner at home. The children were even then camping on
the door-step to take her in to the tree in triumph. And now
For the second time a restraining hand was laid upon her basket; but
this time it was not the grocer's. A gentleman who had come in to order
a Christmas turkey had overheard the conversation, and had seen the
It is all right, he said to the grocer. Give it to me. Here is a
dollar bill for it of the kind you know. If all your groceries were as
honest as this bill, Mr. Schmidt, it would be a pleasure to trade with
you. Don't be afraid to trust Uncle Sam where you see his promise to
The gentleman held the door open for Mrs. Ferguson, and heard the
shout of the delegation awaiting her on the stoop as he went down the
I wonder where that came from, now, he mused. Coupons in Bedford
Street! I suppose somebody sent it to the woman for a Christmas gift.
Hello! Here are old Thomas and Snowflake. Now, wouldn't it surprise her
old stomach if I gave her a Christmas gift of oats? If only the shock
doesn't kill her! Thomas! Oh, Thomas!
The old man thus hailed stopped and awaited the gentleman's coming.
He was a cartman who did odd jobs through the ward, so picking up a
living for himself and the white horse, which the boys had dubbed
Snowflake in a spirit of fun. They were a well-matched old pair, Thomas
and his horse. One was not more decrepit than the other.
There was a tradition along the docks, where Thomas found a job now
and then, and Snowflake an occasional straw to lunch on, that they were
of an age, but this was denied by Thomas.
See here, said the gentleman, as he caught up with them; I want
Snowflake to keep Christmas, Thomas. Take this and buy him a bag of
oats. And give it to him carefully, do you hear?not all at once,
Thomas. He isn't used to it.
Gee whizz! said the old man, rubbing his eyes with his cap, as his
friend passed out of sight, oats fer Christmas! G'lang, Snowflake; yer
The feed-man put on his spectacles and looked Thomas over at the
strange order. Then he scanned the little dollar, first on one side,
then on the other.
Never seed one like him, he said. 'Pears to me he is mighty
short. Wait till I send round to the hockshop. He'll know, if anybody.
The man at the pawnshop did not need a second look. Why, of
course, he said, and handed a dollar bill over the counter. Old
Thomas, did you say? Well, I am blamed if the old man ain't got a
stocking after all. They're a sly pair, he and Snowflake.
Business was brisk that day at the pawnshop. The door-bell tinkled
early and late, and the stock on the shelves grew. Bundle was added to
bundle. It had been a hard winter so far. Among the callers in the
early afternoon was a young girl in a gingham dress and without other
covering, who stood timidly at the counter and asked for three dollars
on a watch, a keepsake evidently, which she was loath to part with.
Perhaps it was the last glimpse of brighter days. The pawnbroker was
doubtful; it was not worth so much. She pleaded hard, while he compared
the number of the movement with a list sent in from Police
Two, he said decisively at last, snapping the case shuttwo or
nothing. The girl handed over the watch with a troubled sigh. He made
out a ticket and gave it to her with a handful of silver change.
Was it the sigh and her evident distress, or was it the little
dollar? As she turned to go, he called her back.
Here, it is Christmas! he said. I'll run the risk. And he added
the coupon to the little heap.
The girl looked at it and at him questioningly.
It is all right, he said; you can take it; I'm running short of
change. Bring it back if they won't take it. I'm good for it. Uncle
Sam had achieved a backer.
In Grand Street the holiday crowds jammed every store in their eager
hunt for bargains. In one of them, at the knit-goods counter, stood the
girl from the pawnshop, picking out a thick, warm shawl. She hesitated
between a gray and a maroon-colored one, and held them up to the light.
For you? asked the salesgirl, thinking to aid her. She glanced at
her thin dress and shivering form as she said it.
No, said the girl; for mother; she is poorly and needs it. She
chose the gray, and gave the salesgirl her handful of money.
The girl gave back the coupon.
They don't go, she said; give me another, please.
But I haven't got another, said the girl, looking apprehensively
at the shawl. TheMr. Feeney said it was all right. Take it to the
desk, please, and ask.
The salesgirl took the bill and the shawl, and went to the desk. She
came back, almost immediately, with the storekeeper, who looked sharply
at the customer and noted the number of the coupon.
It is all right, he said, satisfied apparently by the inspection;
a little unusual, only. We don't see many of them. Can I help you,
miss? And he attended her to the door.
In the street there was even more of a Christmas show going on than
in the stores. Pedlers of toys, of mottoes, of candles, and of
knickknacks of every description stood in rows along the curb, and were
driving a lively trade. Their push-carts were decorated with fir
brancheseven whole Christmas trees. One held a whole cargo of Santa
Clauses in a bower of green, each one with a cedar-bush in his folded
arms, as a soldier carries his gun. The lights were blazing out in the
stores, and the hucksters' torches were flaring at the corners. There
was Christmas in the very air and Christmas in the storekeeper's till.
It had been a very busy day. He thought of it with a satisfied nod as
he stood a moment breathing the brisk air of the winter day, absently
fingering the coupon the girl had paid for the shawl. A thin voice at
his elbow said: Merry Christmas, Mr. Stein! Here's yer paper.
It was the newsboy who left the evening papers at the door every
night. The storekeeper knew him, and something about the struggle they
had at home to keep the roof over their heads. Mike was a kind of
protégé of his. He had helped to get him his route.
Wait a bit, Mike, he said. You'll be wanting your Christmas from
me. Here's a dollar. It's just like yourself: it is small, but it is
all right. You take it home and have a good time.
Was it the message with which it had been sent forth from far away
in the country, or what was it? Whatever it was, it was just impossible
for the little dollar to lie still in the pocket while there was want
to be relieved, mouths to be filled, or Christmas lights to be lit. It
just couldn't, and it didn't.
Mike stopped around the corner of Allen Street, and gave three
whoops expressive of his approval of Mr. Stein; having done which, he
sidled up to the first lighted window out of range to examine his gift.
His enthusiasm changed to open-mouthed astonishment as he saw the
little dollar. His jaw fell. Mike was not much of a scholar, and could
not make out the inscription on the coupon; but he had heard of
shinplasters as something they had in the war, and he took this to be
some sort of a ten-cent piece. The policeman on the block might tell.
Just now he and Mike were hunk. They had made up a little difference
they'd had, and if any one would know, the cop surely would. And off he
went in search of him.
Mr. McCarthy pulled off his gloves, put his club under his arm, and
studied the little dollar with contracted brow. He shook his head as he
handed it back, and rendered the opinion that it was some dom swindle
that's ag'in' the law. He advised Mike to take it back to Mr. Stein,
and added, as he prodded him in an entirely friendly manner in the ribs
with his locust, that if it had been the week before he might have run
him in for having the thing in his possession. As it happened, Mr.
Stein was busy and not to be seen, and Mike went home between hope and
fear, with his doubtful prize.
There was a crowd at the door of the tenement, and Mike saw, before
he had reached it, running, that it clustered about an ambulance that
was backed up to the sidewalk. Just as he pushed his way through the
throng it drove off, its clanging gong scattering the people right and
left. A little girl sat weeping on the top step of the stoop. To her
Mike turned for information.
Susie, what's up? he asked, confronting her with his armful of
papers. Who's got hurted?
It's papa, sobbed the girl. He ain't hurted. He's sick, and he
was took that bad he had to go, an' to-morrer is Christmas, an'oh,
It is not the fashion of Essex Street to slop over. Mike didn't. He
just set his mouth to a whistle and took a turn down the hall to think.
Susie was his chum. There were seven in her flat; in his only four,
including two that made wages. He came back from his trip with his mind
Suse, he said, come on in. You take this, Suse, see! an' let the
kids have their Christmas. Mr. Stein give it to me. It's a little one,
but if it ain't all right I'll take it back and get one that is good.
Go on, now, Suse, you hear? And he was gone.
There was a Christmas tree that night in Susie's flat, with candles
and apples and shining gold, but the little dollar did not pay for it.
That rested securely in the purse of the charity visitor who had come
that afternoon, just at the right time, as it proved. She had heard the
story of Mike and his sacrifice, and had herself given the children a
one-dollar bill for the coupon. They had their Christmas, and a joyful
one, too, for the lady went up to the hospital and brought back word
that Susie's father would be all right with rest and care, which he was
now getting. Mike came in and helped them sack the tree when the lady
was gone. He gave three more whoops for Mr. Stein, three for the lady,
and three for the hospital doctor to even things up. Essex Street was
all right that night.
Do you know, professor, said that learned man's wife, when, after
supper, he had settled down in his easy-chair to admire the Noah's ark
and the duckses' babies and the rest, all of which had arrived safely
by express ahead of him and were waiting to be detailed to their
appropriate stockings while the children sleptdo you know, I heard
such a story of a little newsboy to-day. It was at the meeting of our
district charity committee this evening. Miss Linder, our visitor, came
right from the house. And she told the story of Mike and Susie.
And I just got the little dollar bill to keep. Here it is. She
took the coupon out of her purse and passed it to her husband.
Eh! what? said the professor, adjusting his spectacles and reading
the number. If here isn't my little dollar come back to me! Why, where
have you been, little one? I left you in Bedford Street this morning,
and here you come by way of Essex. Well, I declare! And he told his
wife how he had received it in a letter in the morning.
John, she said, with a sudden impulse,she didn't know, and
neither did he, that it was the charm of the little dollar that was
working again,John, I guess it is a sin to stop it. Jones's children
won't have any Christmas tree, because they can't afford it. He told me
so this morning when he fixed the furnace. And the baby is sick. Let us
give them the little dollar. He is here in the kitchen now.
And they did; and the Joneses, and I don't know how many others, had
a Merry Christmas because of the blessed little dollar that carried
Christmas cheer and good luck wherever it went. For all I know, it may
be going yet. Certainly it is a sin to stop it, and if any one has
locked it up without knowing that he locked up the Christmas dollar,
let him start it right out again. He can tell it easily enough. If he
just looks at the number, that's the one.