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As we shop for presents this holiday season, most of us would probably agree that a good gift should be something useful to the receiver. But, the historian Ellen Litwicki writes, a little over a century ago, that was a new assumption. Litwicki notes that a typical late-nineteenth-century etiquette manual recommended that wedding gifts should consist of “objets d’art and delightful bric-a-brac.” The only exception was for people very close to the bride and groom “who have a right to comprehend the needs of the newly wedded” and could therefore give them something that they actually needed.

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In the early twentieth century, gift advice began to focus on useful things. The movement toward practical gifts represented a dovetailing of two trends. The Arts and Crafts movement promoted a simple aesthetic, while home economics and domestic hygiene advocates worked to rationalize domestic life. In a 1910 Harper’s Bazaar article, writer Maud Howe claimed that, rather than a bunch of “flotsam and jetsam… knickknacks and bric-a-brac,” she would prefer the gift of a box of rubber bands or “one of those delightful wooden-backed nail-brushes with black bristles.”

Litwicki writes that a Progressive-Era coalition of wealthy and working class women formed an organization to address the issue, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (SPUG). The working-class members complained that they felt coerced to contribute to funds to buy presents for their bosses. They pledged to tell those taking up such collections to tell them “I am a Spug. I don’t believe in giving useless Christmas gifts.” Former President Theodore Roosevelt joined in, becoming the first male Spug.

SPUG soon expanded its mission to curtailing the excessive exchanging of Christmas gifts, though not without attracting some vitriol from commentators who considered them holiday-spoiling Scrooges. One newspaper columnist suggested that, since Spugs wanted only inexpensive, useful gifts, they should receive “a brace of kicks, to be delivered by the thickest-booted mailman in the service.” Other opponents of useless gifts proposed re-gifting presents or just giving cash. But, Litwicki writes, for the most part, companies were able to position consumer products, from educational toys to furs, as “useful.”

Household efficiency expert Chrstine Frederick worked with manufacturing companies, conducting time-motion studies to show that products like Hoosier Cabinets would make household work more efficient. One ad suggesting the cabinets as a Christmas gift from husband to wife promised that they would “save her miles of steps.” Martex Turkish Towels even ran an ad urging people to “Be a ‘SPUG’” and buy their friends towels and washcloths.

Today, few people would deliberately choose to give “bric-a-brac” rather than something more practical. But, in a consumer culture where the volume and variety of “useful” things, from electronics to exercise equipment, expands every year, plenty of us might be ready to see the SPUG movement make a comeback.

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 10, No. 4, Booms, Busts, and the Gilded Age (October 2011), pp. 467-505
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era