By Mike Scott
Every child, naughty and nice alike, knows that Santa Claus makes his home at the North Pole.
But for a generation of local children, the jolly old elf’s Crescent City headquarters were at Piffet’s, a “variety and curiosity” store that, especially during the holidays, was as synonymous with Christmas in 19th century New Orleans as Mr. Bingle is now.
“The name was associated with what was considered one of the largest toy stores in the South,” according to a 1922 article in The Times-Picayune. “… Promise of a toy from Piffet’s would quiet the most fretful child.”
That 1922 article went on to recount a two-line, only-in-New-Orleans lullaby that was said to be deployed frequently to lull local children to sleep: “Go to sleep, baby, and don’t you cry; I’ll buy you a toy from Piffet’s by and by.”
In truth, Piffet’s sold much more than just toys. Over the years, it referred to itself in advertisements variously as “B. Piffet’s Great Variety Store” (1853), “B. Piffet’s Grand Bazaar” (1865) and “Southern Emporium at B. Piffet’s” (1871).
Its toy department, however, was an obvious point of pride. Just to make sure nobody forgot, its newspaper ads often started with the words “Toys, Toys, Toys” in bold type, followed by a list of the must-haves of the day: “baby carriages, velocipedes, horses, wagons, and the largest stock of French, German and American toys.”
Its dedication to the holiday season, in fact, would play a significant role in the history of another locally revered holiday: Mardi Gras. That occurred on Jan. 7, 1871, when Santa himself rode in the last carriage participating in the Twelfth Night Revelers’ second-ever parade.
“And very liberally did he along the route of procession distribute his presents, alternately out of a panier with which his back was encumbered, and out of box marked ‘From Piffet’s, Canal Street,’ standing at his feet,” read a story in The Daily Picayune.
Today, that rolling toy distribution is widely recognized as the first recorded instance of the deployment of Carnival throws.
Piffet’s was founded in 1835 by French immigrant John Baptiste Piffet – or “B. Piffet,” which was the name he used on his storefront.
Early on, his store was located on Chartres Street, just off Canal. Before the city formalized its street numbering system, the store listed its address over the years as being 40 Chartres, 50 Chartres and 11 Chartres.
Once the streets were renumbered in 1890s, it was given as 115 Chartres, which is today home to one of a trio of identical three-bay, four-story brick buildings, each topped by dormer windows and dating to 1832, according to the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Vieux Carré Digital Survey.
(For the record, the current ground-floor occupant of 115 Chartres is a restaurant called Jimmy J’s Café. It bills itself as “N’awlins’ Funkiest Lil’ Café,” although its general degree of funk could not be verified.)
Business for Piffet’s was apparently so good that by December 1859, it had spawned a second location, run by his sons Francois Piffet and L. Piffet. This one was on Canal Street, in the crowded row of similarly designed commercial buildings in the 700 block known as Touro Row that served as a sort of 19th century version of the strip mall of today.
By all accounts it continued the tradition of the original store, right down to the Santa Claus connection. According to a newspaper ad, it offered “all sorts of fancy goods, perfumery, toilet articles, fireworks, toys, holiday gifts of every kind; just the collection from which Santa Claus could fill his sledge a dozen times over.”
As the years passed, Piffet’s endured everything from epidemics to the Civil War. It could not, however, endure time.
When Francois Piffet’s son, John, died in December 1889 at the age of 29, there was no one left either capable of or willing to run the business. In September 1895, one last “Toys, Toys, Toys” ad ran in The Daily Picayune. It was for the liquidation of the business, right down to the store’s shelves.
The Piffet’s spirit would live on, however. The site of the old Canal Street store would become home to the Marks Isaacs Department Store, which lured New Orleanians well into the 20th century.
In the early 2000s, the Marks Isaacs space – and thus the Piffet’s space – was incorporated with several nearby buildings into the then-new Astor Crowe Plaza hotel, which it remains today.
This story was originally published Dec. 14, 2020, on NOLA.com and in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.