Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | December 16, 2010

The Nature of 19th Century Gifts: Sentimental or Practical?

Presents or gift-giving did not become more prevalent across New England until the nineteenth century.  Gift-exchange at Christmas became more common during the 1850′s and continued to increase in popularity with each passing decade.  Religiously, the giving of gifts came to symbolize God’s gift of Jesus to humanity. “In the social context, the custom signified a bond between giver and receiver….Within the family and among friends, the ritual of gifts strengthened such important, intangible qualities as amity, affection, appreciation, generosity, and mutual dependence, qualities that held no monetary value in the world market….The material gifts exchanged around a family’s hearth or between friends at Christmas encoded relationships and were at one and the same time the most cherished and basic….”, (Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, page 69).

Yet, how and what each family member selected as a gift was based upon 19th-century cultural expectations. As today, husbands and wives often exchanged gifts, but the nature of the gifts varied between genders. Husbands were inclined to give to their wives gifts of a less practical, more sentimental and often more expensive nature, such a jewelry.  On the other hand, wives tended to give their spouses personal, sensible and time-costly gifts such as handmade slippers.  Yet, the wife’s gift to her husband often had an additional, practical dimension. For example, “the gift of a gold pen to a young gentleman intimated ‘mental power and moral improvement….refinement of thought, and progress in civilization’, (Restad, Christmas in America, page 71).”

As expected, children were the main recipients of gifts, although they also exchanged gifts with one another, as well as their parents. In 1835, one German gentleman from Dresden, Germany was especially impressed by the children’s gesture of giving to their parents. He, along with other guests were summoned into a room “where the presents which the children had secretly prepared for the elder members of the family were placed under the tree….there was nothing very valuable or beautiful that was given, yet it was all received with so much pleasure by the parents and elder brother, that the children were delighted, and kissed us all round very heartily.” 

Responsible parents were encouraged to supply their children with gifts that made lesson-learning pleasurable. Horace Bushnell endorsed the value of children’s toys; he wrote, “One of the first duties of a genuinely Christian parent is, to show a generous sympathy with the plays of his children; providing playthings and means of play, giving them playthings.”  Hence, in response to Bushnell’s toy endorsement, Noah’s Ark was especially popular in Christian homes where the Sabbath was strictly observed and so entertainment limited on that particular day of the week. 



Although spinning tops, dolls, candies, books, and other favors could also serve useful ends.


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