Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2015

"Defining the Gift: From Emerson to the Gift Registry" by Ellen Litwicki

Dr. Ellen Litwicki, is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her research and teaching areas include topics in American cultural history, research methods, public history, and digital humanities. She is the author of America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920 (2000) and various articles on American holidays and gift giving. Email:

In a marvelous 2006 essay in the New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris reflected on the difficulty of giving a gift to his boyfriend, Hugh. He explained that when he asked Hugh what he wanted for his birthday or Christmas, Hugh’s response was always, “You tell me.” Hugh believed that David should know what Hugh wanted, if he really knew Hugh. As Sedaris put it, “It’s not enough to search the shops; I have to search his soul as well. He turns gift-giving into a test, which I don’t think is fair at all.” Sedaris related that he, in contrast, kept a running list of gift ideas for himself, and was always happy to share it with people wanting to give him a gift. He simply didn’t understand why Hugh wasn’t similarly forthcoming (Sedaris).

David and Hugh are great examples of what we might call the polar extremes of gift giving. Hugh is the idealist who believes that someone who knows him so well should have a clear idea of the perfect gift for him. David, the pragmatist, wants the recipient to tell him exactly what he or she wants. He is the type of person for whom the gift registry was invented. Many Americans, myself included, have a love-hate relationship with the registry, which is of American origins but has begun to seep into Europe. The gift registry enables a couple getting married (or, today, someone anticipating just about any life occasion) to publish a detailed wish list of gift items, along with information about how prospective givers can buy and send them. Like Hugh, I hate that the registry tells me I cannot figure out the “perfect” gift based on my knowledge of the individual in question, but have to buy what s/he selected, specified right down to the pattern, color, etc., with no room for creativity. But, like David, I love the registry in other cases, when I have no idea what to buy, especially when I barely know the recipient (my boss’s daughter, for instance).

This ambivalence about the registry, rooted in our discomfort with the “audacity” of someone telling us what to buy them for a gift, seems widespread today, judging by the number of outraged letters sent to etiquette columns. This is particularly true when prospective recipients request the ultimate pragmatic gift of money. A recent letter to the popular American etiquette columnist Miss Manners described an invitation to an engagement party that specified, "We kindly request that you leave the choice of the gift to the engaged couple.” Another letter from a prospective bride asked “the proper way to request cash in lieu of gifts via a bridal registry.” To the latter, Miss Manners responded succinctly, “Sit on the floor with a hat turned upside down on the floor next to you” (Martin).

Although Miss Manners (the pen name of Judith Martin) remains firmly opposed to both the gift registry and monetary presents, both are widespread in the United States today. The idea for this project came from overhearing a young woman discussing what she would do with wedding gifts that did not come from her registry. This made me curious about the origins of the gift registry, and researching that has led me down an intriguing path through the contradictory ideas of gift giving that Americans manage to hold simultaneously. I have found that anxiety about gift giving and debates over what constitutes the perfect gift have a long history, which began with Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-nineteenth century. This essay will trace how we got from Emerson’s idealism—he defined the gift as “a portion of thyself” rather than something that could be purchased—to the crass pragmatism of the gift registry.

Scholars in many disciplines have examined gift giving. Market and consumer behavior researchers study the motivations and habits of gift givers, while philosophers dissect the gift’s meanings. The scholarly literature has been dominated by anthropologists and sociologists, who have tended to posit a binary opposition between gift exchange as an economic system and as a social system. Anthropologists have largely followed the lead of pioneering gift scholar Marcel Mauss by concentrating on non-market societies and their gift exchange economies. Sociologists have contended that the gift is just as central to contemporary market societies as to non-market but that gift giving in such societies is essentially a social/cultural, not an economic, system.1 Despite this rich literature, historians have neglected the gift. In one of the few historical studies, Natalie Zemon Davis looked at the transition to a market economy in sixteenth-century France, arguing that gift exchange persisted as a cultural system alongside the emerging system of commodity transaction.2 I would suggest that the social/cultural system of gift giving does not simply parallel the commercial economy, but that the two are intertwined.

Anthropologist James Carrier has provided the fullest examination of how the rise of industrial capitalism and its commodity relations affected gift exchange. He argues that capitalism intensified gift relations and spawned the ideal of the free, unreciprocated gift as a way to distinguish gifts from commodity transactions.3 Drawing on Carrier, I find that the emergence of the commercial economy in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with an increase in domestic gift giving. If a market economy made it necessary to distinguish gifts from commodities, it also provided an impetus to increase the number of gifts given, as manufacturers created an ever-broadening array of consumer goods.

But it was not the economy alone that dictated the rise in gifting. Rather, I argue that it is the relationship between this economy and the concurrent emergence of the middle class that best explains the upsurge in gift giving. The creation of a middle-class culture defined in terms of family, domesticity, and sentiment gave the gift new meaning. The domestic ideal led to the expansion of family rituals and celebrations—what Elizabeth Pleck has called “sentimental occasions”—which both created and reinforced family memories and bonds.4 Many of these became gift occasions, and gifts chosen from the newly available consumer goods increasingly became the means of symbolizing the affection that bound the family and a widening circle of friends. Thus, the relationship between the sentimental occasion and the market economy was close and mutually beneficial, if fraught with the potential dangers of commodifying sentiment and the intrusion of market values into the domestic sphere. This essay focuses on the effort to distinguish between gifts and commodities, which resulted in the seeming contradictions between the ideal and the reality of the gift. Observers worried that commercializing the gift would transform a ritual of affection into a mere pecuniary exchange, but Americans forged a middle ground in which a commodity might be transformed into a gift by the giver’s sentiment. I argue that this American gift system, by design, both bridged and blurred the gap between commerce and affection.

One of the earliest American commentators on the gift was the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1844 published a brief essay on “Gifts.” This essay is significant for what it tells us about the development of an American ideology of gifts and for what it suggests, more broadly, about American ambivalence toward the market revolution and the nascent consumer culture it fostered, which continues to reverberate in our attitudes toward gift giving. In the essay Emerson condemned the purchased gift, asserting that “[t]he only gift is a portion of thyself” (Emerson, 94-95). The timing of Emerson’s essay, written in the midst of America’s commercial, industrial, and transportation revolutions, was not coincidental. These revolutions, which multiplied the consumer goods available to Americans, had a decided impact on their gift giving habits, increasing both the number of gift occasions and the number of gifts, and producing a shift toward purchased rather than handmade presents.

Emerson began his essay with a reference to “the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts” (93). (Correspondence from his daughter Ellen suggest that Emerson may have had personal reasons for writing this essay, as she describes incidents where he seems perplexed about giving presents, even to his wife.) New Year’s Day had long been a gift occasion in much of the United States and this custom had intensified and spread in the early nineteenth century. Merchants were regularly advertising gift items for purchase by the 1820s. New Yorker Philip Hone noted in his diary in 1847 that “New Year’s presents have abounded this year. . . . Some of the houses where I visited yesterday presented the appearance of bazaars, where rich presents were displayed, from the costly cashmere shawls and silver tankard to the toy watch and child’s rattle.” By the time of Emerson’s essay the transformation of Christmas into a present-centered domestic holiday was underway as well. These gifts, too, were increasingly purchased. Americans could select holiday presents from dozens of annual gift books, children’s books, cakes and candies, and a growing array of jewelry, pens, and other “fancy goods” sold by local merchants.5 Moreover, Americans by the 1840s were also celebrating their birthdays more often and with more presents.6

This rise in gift giving and its connections to commercial culture engendered a spate of discussion in contemporary magazines, to which Emerson’s essay, originally published in The Dial, contributed. Commentators wrestled with the intrusion of the marketplace into the intimate province of the domestic gift and formulated methods of blunting the force of commercialization. They did this by carefully delineating the distinction between a gift and a commodity, by suggesting appropriate gifts, and by condemning the commercialization of this process. Ultimately, however, they pointed the way toward compromises that could transform a purchased commodity into an appropriate gift and thus reconcile, however uneasily, the gift and the emerging culture of consumption.

Emerson responded to the market’s intrusion into gift giving by rejecting it outright. He defined the gift as a voluntary offering to an intimate, unrelated to concerns of cementing family or clan relations, and equally unrelated to the principles of exchange and reciprocity. Emerson disparaged purchased presents, noting that “it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something.” He asserted that “[r]ings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts.” The problem was that such purchases did “not represent [the giver’s] life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.” In the heart of the essay, Emerson laid out his “rule for a gift”: it must “convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought.” Moreover, because “a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift,” a true gift must be the product of the giver, preferably wrought by his or her own hands. Nor should the gift be dictated by the recipient’s need, lest it violate his or her independence. Emerson thus proclaimed “the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts.” As examples of the ideal gift he suggested: “the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; . . . the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing” (Emerson, 93-95).

In developing this philosophy of the ideal gift, Emerson posited a clear and unbridgeable chasm between the spirit of the gift and the market. Emerson’s ideal suggested that gifts should be rare and occasional, not common and recurring, which belied the contemporaneous proliferation of gifts and gift occasions. By his definition, once a present was expected, it was no longer a gift. Emerson defined the true gift as intensely personal and unique to both the giver and recipient, thereby singularly evocative of their relationship. The personal nature of Emerson’s gift, while illustrative of his radical individualism, also served to distinguish the gift from the consumer goods increasingly available to Americans.

Emerson’s dismay at the way that commerce was reshaping gift giving was not unique in this period. Just two years later, Godey’s Lady’s Book published “Hints for an Essay on Presents.” The writer began with nostalgia for the time when “[g]ifts used to be pleasant things,” being “the most natural expressions of good-will and affection.” This had been nearly destroyed, however, by the modern tendency to transform the gift into “something which can be bought with money!” The author lamented the fact that “a birthday present or a New Year’s gift . . . must now be a costly article of bijouterie whose worth can be reckoned in dollars.” This intrusion of commerce into gift giving led the writer to conclude that presents “have almost lost their sweet meaning, and become a meaner sort of merchandize,” rather than “the spontaneous offering of heart to heart, owing all value to sentiment.” Like Emerson, the author condemned “[t]hat which is given because it is supposed to be expected” as no gift at all, proclaiming that “A present must be altogether voluntary . . . without alloy on either side.” Those who gave with expectations of return, the writer observed, were inevitably disappointed when their presents “[did] not buy affection, respect, deference, conformity, and other things.”7

Critics targeted the fashion of displaying wedding gifts as a particularly odious instance of the market invading the realm of sentiment. An 1871 article in The Ladies’ Repository decried the new custom of displaying “the long, glittering inventory of bridal presents. . .before the wedding guests like trinkets in a merchant’s show-case.” This display of gifts not only reduced them to the “meaner sort of merchandize” bemoaned by Godey’s, it also encouraged wedding guests to give beyond their means lest they be thought to be cheap or poor, and thus promoted debt. Godey’s speculated snidely that greedy brides might next add “No presents from the Dollar stores” to their wedding invitations. Another article in the Repository argued that the “fashion of displaying wedding presents is oppression to the poor” and remarked that it was degrading to the newlyweds “to count the cost of their presents, and compare the amount with that received by Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Such criticism clearly connected the excesses of wedding gifts with the growing commercial marketplace of goods. Henry Ward Beecher similarly used the language of the merchant in his 1870 diatribe against the display, noting that “after the wedding bazaar is closed, an account of stock is taken,” and suggesting that the bride ranked her friends according to the value of their presents.8

These writers criticized the gift display for favoring such mercantile calculation over the sentiment the gift should embody. The Ladies’ Repository condemned those who would sneer at the woman who gave a “portfolio of her own drawings [that] [n]ever cost her a cent!” (a truly Emersonian gift) and waxed nostalgic in claiming that it had not always been so. Twenty or thirty years prior, the writer recollected, brides had been thrilled to receive “the snowy stocking in which some fond aunt, or grandmother had knit their future initials with quaint device, the needle-cases, pincushions . . . which cousins and school-mates had wrought.” Such hand-crafted gifts were promoted by prescriptive writers, who saw in them the expression of the giver’s affection for the recipient. The Repository thus advised that the birthday presents exchanged by children should “be such as their own loving painstaking can provide–a basket of nuts or fruit gathered by their own hands, a toy carved with a boy’s penknife, or a pencil sketch.”9

Despite this nostalgia for some earlier golden age of gift giving, the ideal of the gift articulated here and by Emerson was decidedly a new one, which responded with unease to the intrusion of the market into the domestic realm of the gift. But it is important to note that the proliferation of domestic gift giving was also a recent phenomenon, linked, to be sure, to the emerging market culture but also to the rise of the middle class and the affectionate family. By the 1860s and 1870s, gift sales, particularly for Christmas and weddings, were well on their way to becoming a mainstay of the retail economy. Although some critics continued to toe the Emersonian line, this could not stem the tide of purchased gifts. Americans increasingly purchased their presents, whether because of a lack of time or talent to craft their own, or because of the growing selection of affordable merchandise available to them. For example, Jennie Lines recorded in her diary on Christmas Day 1865 that her landlady’s boarders presented her “with a handsome set of silver ware–forks, spoons, both large and small, caster spoons butter knives &c.” Lines also noted that her husband had “bought our little daughter Daisy a beautiful little rocking chair for her Christmas present.”10

A look at two lists of wedding presents clearly demonstrates the growing imbalance between purchased and hand-crafted gifts by the late nineteenth century. Elizabeth Johnson Harris, a middle-class African American woman in Georgia, recalled in her memoir that she had received “more than two hundred” gifts for her 1883 wedding. Among those were a parlor lamp, gold belt pins and bracelets, “gilded cups and saucers,” silver teaspoons, white kid slippers, a china vase, and linen towels and handkerchiefs. Of these, only the last three were possibly hand-made or -decorated. Frances Wells Shaw, a white upper-middle-class Chicago woman who married a decade later, listed 174 gifts in her wedding book. These included five silver bonbon dishes, clocks, a wide array of silver utensils and china dishes, a chest of silver from her parents, bronze jars, silver and china candelabras, and even a Steinway piano. Again, only a few items were probably the product of handicraft: a lace handkerchief, a wool afghan, doilies, an etching, and a watercolor.11

These examples suggest that Americans were indeed purchasing their gifts. Commentators responded by working out ways to reconcile the gift with commerce, while retaining the essence of Emerson’s ideal. Most importantly, they began to suggest ways in which merchandise might be transformed into gifts. In an 1862 short story in Godey’s, a young woman grieving for her dead child receives a birthday gift from her estranged husband: “A little photograph of a sleeping child, lying among pillows; the eyes were softly closed, showing the long lashes, the delicately curved lips were slightly parted, the broad, white forehead, shadowed by rings of soft curling hair, the tiny hands were folded lightly together, the very image of peaceful repose.” It was a photograph of their dead baby, “all we have left of him but one of those little curls,” her husband reminds her. Posing dead children for photographs, a macabre act by contemporary standards, was a widespread practice in the mid-nineteenth century. Middle-class Americans memorialized their lost children with these postmortem keepsakes. The gift produces a reconciliation between husband and wife, who end the story with a new baby, the best gift of all.12 This story retained the Emersonian ideal of the gift reflecting the relationship between the giver and recipient, but it showed how a new commercial item, the photograph, might be “decontaminated” and transformed into a true gift by sentiment.

A writer for the Nation went even further in proposing ways to transform consumer goods into true gifts: “[the giver] can have a book bound after a design of his own; he can use his trained judgment to pick the only beautiful bronze of a lot; he can buy cheap brown or buff earthen candlesticks and paint them with his own hands till they are more beautiful than the costliest porcelain.” Even the business man could “watch and wait . . . keep a memorandum-book for the purpose of recording wishes” and then use his money to seek out the very item most desired by the recipient.13 The Nation thus suggested that thoughtful shopping could transform merchandise into a gift. The author’s example of a businessman acknowledged that the industrial economy, which demanded long and regular hours of work, made it difficult for many Americans to find the time to create a gift, even if they had the talent. Money could provide the solution, provided that an individual devoted the time and effort to find the gift that would truly reflect the recipient. The very effort to discern and find the perfect gift would transform that commodity into “a portion of” the giver’s self.14

As prescriptive writers discovered ways in which purchased presents could embody the sentiment and symbolize the relationship between giver and recipient, the growing availability and acceptance of such gifts produced a new problem, which we might call conspicuous gifting. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen remarked only in passing on the relationship between presents and conspicuous consumption. He spent more time discussing the link between beauty and value, arguing that the leisure class had so linked the two that “a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful.” He also noted that consumption must be wasteful, or not necessary, to provide status. This suggests the ultimate expression (and distortion) of Emerson’s dictate that the gift should be both useless and beautiful. Such conspicuous gifting was most noticeable at Christmas and weddings, and came increasingly under attack at the turn of the century.15

Critics condemned the increasingly mercenary character of modern gifts, citing both the greed and obligation such giving inspired. They also deplored the uselessness of many gifts, as well as the lack of sentiment behind them. One writer attacked those who “mark[ed] seasons of the year and anniversaries of birthdays or weddings by going into a fancy shop and selecting from the thousand and one useless articles there displayed” and suggested that the impact of such reckless giving was to create “jaded” children whose “nurser[ies were] glutted with a perfect shopful of toys” and who would grow up into greedy adults.16 A 1906 piece in Outlook discussed the “needed reformer[s]” for the wedding gift system, pointing to the wealthy bride who received “thirty-two bonbon dishes. . .and six water-bottles” as well as the middle-class bride who received “twenty-seven cut-glass bowls. . .and other equally useless things,” for which she and her husband had to purchase a special display cabinet. In a short story in the Woman’s Home Companion the mother of the bride, faced with the “loads of cut glass and silver” her daughter was receiving, expressed her wish that “people would give useful, everyday presents.”17

Prescriptive writers had already revised Emerson’s definition of the gift to suggest that thoughtfully chosen purchased items could be just as acceptable as handicrafts. Now they, like the mother of the bride in the previous example, discarded his ideal of useless beauty in favor of an emphasis on the appropriateness of practical gifts. In a 1913 article in the Ladies’ Home Journal, Carolyn Crane described her favorites among the gifts she had received for her baby: “While some of my friends were thoughtless in their selections many of the gifts for my little son had the true requisites of real gifts: they were beautiful, useful, and had an individuality that always suggested the giver.” Crane singled out her hand-crafted gifts for her highest praise. These included “several pairs of stocking forms of graduated sizes which [her nephew] had laboriously and carefully whittled from white pine,” a toy chest “designed and made” by another nephew, a crib quilt “patiently and lovingly pieced” together by a “dear old great-aunt,” and, most beloved of all, an old shawl given by the baby’s great-grandmother, who “had wrapped all her babies in its warm folds.”18

Crane’s definition of “real gifts” clearly owed much to Emerson. Her praise of handicraft, however, was likely influenced just as much by the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement. Her commendation of useful gifts, on the other hand, marked a significant departure from Emerson. And despite her emphasis on homemade items, useful presents were often neither handmade nor inexpensive. Nowhere was this made clearer than in advice on wedding gifts, which demonstrated most dramatically the shift from what former President Grover Cleveland denounced as the “merely ornamental” to the “homely” and practical gift. Most progressive era gift reformers endorsed Cleveland’s suggestion of wedding presents along the lines of “the chest of drawers, the dining-table, the comfortables and quilts, the crockery and furniture, and the other articles useful in home-building which our grandmothers gave our mothers on their wedding days.” Whereas late nineteenth-century etiquette manuals had recommended as wedding gifts useless but sentimental and beautiful “objets d’art and delightful bric-á-brac” and advised that “useful articles, such as silver, furniture, and money, may not be given by those who are outside of the family circle,” a 1912 House Beautiful article suggested that “[s]ilver, china and linen are three staple household lines of which no bride ever has too much.” Hilda Richmond similarly counseled Ladies’ Home Journal readers that “fine linens, solid silver, well-bound books, fine china” were appropriate wedding gifts.”19

While not ignoring the relationship expressed by the gift, prescriptive writers in this period also subtly revised Emerson’s ideal of the gift as an extension of the giver. Now givers were advised to consider also the recipient’s desires and needs in choosing their presents. Richmond suggested that the inefficiency of unwanted gifts could be resolved by what she dubbed “Golden Rule” giving. Give a gift that you would like to receive, she advised women: “If you love fine linens, pretty china and bits of needlework why not send your friends gifts like those when they set up homes of their own? Do you enjoy owning tiny candlesticks with paper petticoats, or silver bonbon-dishes, or tipsy vases? If not why do you cumber the bride with such foolish things. . . Your attic may be stocked with all sorts of things that never were useful or ornamental,” she concluded in an implicit rebuke to re-gifters, “but don’t take your disappointment out on some other bride.”20 The gift was no longer an extension of the giver so much as a testament to her ability to discern what the recipient most desired. Unfortunately, this was not easy, and businesses soon developed a way to help.

In a 1915 short story in the Woman’s Home Companion, a wedding guest sought her local jeweler’s advice on gifts, which hinted at a more efficient system of gift purchase. This story not only reflected custom, it was the fruit of a concerted campaign by the jewelry industry to orchestrate and direct wedding gift sales in a way that would fatten its coffers. That same year, for instance, the Jeweler’s Circular suggested that jewelers peruse engagement notices and then contact the brides-to-be, in an effort to “sell the bulk of the jewelry and silver and cut glass and fancy china.” The article advised the retailer to “get a list of the members of both families, get a list of the friends, get the names of the bridesmaids, the groomsmen. . .and especially everyone who will be called upon for a gift,” and to send personal letters to these individuals inviting them to purchase their gifts at the jeweler’s establishment.21 The records of gifts purchased that these retailers kept became the first primitive gift registries. Yet if the gift registry itself was the brainchild of retailers, it stemmed just as surely from the reformers who sought to make the gift system more efficient. The registry, which listed the gift preferences of the bride, was the ultimate system for rationalizing gift giving.

The gift registry as we know it took shape over the course of the 1910s and 1920s as jewelry stores and gift shops began to record brides’ preferences. Department stores followed, led by Marshall Field’s introduction of a Wedding and Gift Bureau in 1925 and the 1935 opening of its Bride’s House, which included what Field’s called a “gift registry service.”22 The period after World War II saw the registry further standardized and systematized by bridal magazines and department stores, and introduced as well for baby gifts. In recent years we have seen the addition of new venues for gift registries—discount stores, home improvement stores, outdoor adventure retailers, toy stores, E-tailers—as well as a proliferating array of occasions for which we are encouraged to develop registries. Several websites now offer to register your wish list for gifts from any merchant for any occasion. The Knot, for instance, allows couples to post wedding registries from multiple retailers. FindGift.com will create registries for holidays, graduation, birthdays, and virtually any occasion the prospective recipient can dream up, and then e-mail these lists to their friends and relatives.

We might well ask if anything today remains of Emerson’s philosophy of gifts? In both practice and prescription, Americans have chipped away at his strictures against purchased and useful gifts, and have developed registries to tell us what the recipient needs and wants, rather than relying on the giver’s knowledge of and connection with the recipient. The power of the commercial culture against which Emerson defined the gift doomed his definition. Still, his ideal lingers in the presents painstakingly hand crafted by children and by those talented individuals who knit, embroider, bake, paint, and otherwise create unique gifts for us. Despite the rationalization and overt commercialization of gift giving, I would argue that the spirit of Emerson still haunts our gifting. We want the ease of the registry, of a list of suggestions, but we also want to give a unique gift. We are caught between David Sedaris, who just wants a wish list, and Hugh, who wants a gift individually selected to reflect his relationship with David. Sedaris effectively (and, of course, humorously) captures the mixed feelings we continue to have about gift giving. Sometimes we want to select the present, based on our relationship with the recipient; sometimes we just want a shopping list. For my cousin’s children, for instance, I buy something from the registry. Sometimes we try to personalize the wedding present we select from the registry, seeking that middle ground. For a friend’s shower, I bought the cookie sheet on her list but also included a cookie cookbook. For my niece’s wedding shower, however, I ignored the registry altogether and gave her a hand crafted wall hanging I bought in Chiapas, because she has a longstanding passion for Mexican culture. But we choose the last path cautiously. Ignoring the wishes of the recipient risks the humiliation of having our offering spurned and returned, the recipient rejecting our bid to make our gift convey to the recipient, in Emerson’s words, “that which properly belong[s] to his character” (Emerson, 94).


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  • Wells, F. L. “Wedding Presents of F. L. Wells.” Folder 3, box 1. Shaw-Wells Families Papers. Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill.
  • Wheeler, C. B. September 24, 1904. “Gifts.” Living Age. 798-99.


1 Key works include Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls, foreword by Mary Douglas (1923; New York, 1990); C. A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (London, 1982); Jacques T. Godbout, in collaboration with Alain Caillé, The World of the Gift, trans. Donald Winkler (Montreal, 1998); Aafke E. Komter, Social Solidarity and the Gift (Cambridge, 2005); Mark Osteen, ed., The Question of the Gift: Essays across Disciplines (London, 2002); David J. Cheal, The Gift Economy (London, 1988); Barry Schwartz, "The Social Psychology of the Gift," American Journal of Sociology 73 (July 1967): 1-11; Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini, eds., Gift Giving: A Research Anthology (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1996).

2 Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison, Wisc., 2000). There are few historical studies of modern gift giving. William Waits examined the evolution of Christmas gifts in The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving (New York, 1993). Leigh Eric Schmidt touches on gift giving in Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, 1995). In addition, Viviana A. Zelizer considered the changing acceptance of money as a gift in The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies (Princeton, 1997), 71-118.

3 James Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (London and New York, 1995); James Carrier, “Gifts in a World of Commodities: The Ideology of the Perfect Gift in American Society,” Social Analysis 29 (1990): 19-37.

4 Elizabeth H. Pleck, Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals (Cambridge, MA, 2000), 1,10-20.

5 Bayard Tuckerman, ed., The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851, vol. 2 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1889), 2 January 1847, 291. Also see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 113-17, 122-27; Cindy Dickinson, “Creating a World of Books, Friends, and Flowers: Gift Books and Inscriptions, 1825-60,” Winterthur Portfolio 31 (1996): 53-66. The fullest account of this transformation of Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Random House, 1996).

6 In 1832, for instance, Sarah Connell Ayer recorded in her diary the thirteenth birthday of her son Samuel. She noted that he had “had two, or three of his young friends to dine with him” for the birthday and remarked that her husband “always gave each of the children a present on their birth-day.” Similarly, William Appleton listed the gifts he had received from his grandsons for his 58th birthday in 1845, which included “a locket with his Hair from the one, & from Mr. George ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ beautifully got up.” Sarah Connell Ayer, Diary of Sarah Connell Ayer (Portland, Me.: Lefavor-Tower Col, 1910), 23 December 1832, 3:343; William Appleton, Selections from the Diaries of William Appleton, 1786-1862 (Boston: privately printed, 1922), 16 November 1845, 116-17.

7 “Hints for an Essay on Presents,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1845, 27-29. Etiquette books at mid-century made virtually no mention of gifts, but one of the few to address the subject also articulated the Emersonian ideal. This 1847 manual advised women that their gifts to gentlemen should be “little articles not purchased, but those deriving a priceless value as being the offering of their gentle skill, such as a trifle from their needle, or a picture from their pencil.” An American Lady, True Politeness. A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies (New York: Leavitt and Allan, 1847), 61-62. Other manuals from this period make no mention of gifts.

8 “Festivals and Presents,” The Ladies’ Repository, January 1871, 45-46; “Wedding Cards,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1873, 96; “Bridal Presents,” The Ladies’ Repository, March 1868, 170-71; Henry Ward Beecher, “Wedding Bazaars,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, March 1870, 295 (reprinted from the New York Ledger).

9 “Festivals and Presents,” 44, 45-46.

10 Amelia Akehurst Lines, To Raise Myself a Little: The Diaries and Letters of Jennie, a Georgia Teacher, 1851-1886, ed. Thomas Dyer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982), 25 December 1865, 220.

11 Elizabeth Johnson Harris, “Life Story, 1867-1923,” 74-75, Digital Scriptorium, Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/harris/; “Wedding Presents of F. L. Wells,” folder 3, box 1, Shaw-Wells Families Papers, Chicago Historical Society.

12 Alice B. Haven, “Incompatibility of Temper. A Story for Young Husbands and Wives,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1862, 474+, accessed at “Accessible Archives,” http://accessible.com (16 February 2002).

13 Presents,” The Nation, 21 December 1865, 783-84.

14 Such shopping and the time it took probably contributed to the shifting of the primary burden for gift selection to women by the end of the century. This is something I will be investigating more fully in the larger project.

15 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, foreword by Stuart Chase (1899; New York, 1934), 75, 96, 132.

16 C. B. Wheeler, “Gifts,” Living Age, 24 September 1904, 798-99.

17 “The Spectator,” Outlook, 17 February 1906, 349; Caroline Klingensmith Gardner, “Real Ibsen Ware,” Woman’s Home Companion, June 1915, 5.

18 Carolyn Crane, “Some Gifts They Gave My Baby,” Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1913, 67.

19 Grover Cleveland, “The Honest American Marriage,” Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1906, 7; Florence Howe Hall, Social Customs (Boston, 1887), 166; Social Etiquette of New York, new and enlarged ed. (New York, 1883), 143; Jonathan A. Rawson, Jr., “Sensible Wedding Gifts,” House Beautiful, July 1912, 43; Hilda Richmond, “Golden Rule Wedding Gifts,” Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1906, 44.

20 Richmond, “Golden Rule Wedding Gifts.”

21 Gardner, “Real Ibsen Ware”; “June–The Month of Brides and Girl Grads,” Jewelers’ Circular 70 (May 26, 1915): 111.

22 Marshall Field’s and Company Archives, Chicago History Museum.