“A merry Christmas, with Love’s gifts for the young, Home’s comforts for the old, and Heaven’s bright hopes for all, is our fervent aspiration.”
Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1854.
Shopping for Christmas presents in the Victorian era could be quite tricky, especially if one was a lady choosing a gift for a gentleman. Luckily, newspapers, magazines, and etiquette books of the day were only too happy to offer advice on appropriate gifts for all the men, women, and children in one’s life. They also offered advice on such thorny issues as re-gifting gifts and keeping to a Christmas budget. In today’s article we look at a few of these recommended Christmas gifts for ladies and gentlemen, as well as at Victorian advice on re-gifting and living within one’s means during the holidays.
Gifts for Gentlemen
At Christmastime, many Victorian ladies gave gifts to their male relations. Choosing these gifts was not always easy. As an 1879 edition of Harper’s Bazaar explains:
“Gentlemen do not care for the pretty trifles and decorations that delight ladies; and as for real necessities, they are apt to go and buy anything that is a convenience just as soon as it is discovered.”
Ladies were limited not only by a gentleman’s tastes, but by the dictates of polite society. A gift to a gentleman should not be excessively expensive, nor should it be overly intimate in nature. Gifts from ladies were meant to be modest, tasteful, and—ideally—made with their own hand. With so many restrictions, it is no wonder that a columnist in the 1888 edition of Good Housekeeping laments:
“I know just how hard it is to think of something to give the ‘men folks.’ I know how many sighs have been breathed over the perplexity and hopelessness of it…”
So, what sort of Christmas gifts might a Victorian lady give to her father, brother, uncle, or husband?
Gifts from a Shop
There was no one size fits all gift for men. However, as a general rule, smoking caps, sleeping caps, and house slippers were popular go-to gifts for gentlemen relations, as were handkerchiefs and tobacco pouches. Shaving soaps and accessories were also quite popular. In fact, according to an 1897 edition of the Chemist and Druggist:
“The ‘Vestal’ shaving-soap vase in Burslem-ware is one of the few things in the soap line that a lady can buy for a man, and he would think ‘such a practical girl she is!’”
House slippers and shaving soaps were certainly practical gifts, but for some young gentlemen—those of intelligence and refinement—a more elegant Christmas gift was recommended. As an 1864 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book states:
“There can be no holiday gift from a young lady to a young gentleman more appropriate than a gold pen. It is suggestive of mental power and moral improvement, of refinement of thought, and progress in civilization. Would you indicate the highest heroism and patriotism to your masculine friends, remember that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’”
Three-piece (or greater) toilet sets also made elegant Christmas gifts, as did various decorative trifles for a gentleman’s desk or dressing table. An 1899 edition of the Sketch describes several such items which would suit as Christmas presents for gentlemen, including a silver tobacco box with a spring lid and a “silver combined whistle, match-box and compass” which “any man would be glad to receive as a Christmas cadeau.”
Though store-bought Christmas gifts were gaining rapidly in popularity, many ladies still made most of their Christmas gifts by hand. An 1894 edition of Demorest’s Family Magazine reminds its female readers that “the gift should be part of the giver.” As such, they advise that:
“Young women making gifts might paint something, embroider something, make anything with their own hands, that may be called part of themselves.”
Lady’s magazines of the day offered many suggestions—and patterns—for homemade Christmas presents suitable for gentlemen, including embroidered handkerchiefs, cravat sachets, and tobacco pouches made of materials as diverse as chamois, satin, and cashmere. Of these various homemade Christmas gifts, tobacco pouches were, by far, the most popular. An 1888 edition of the New Peterson Magazine explains the reason why:
“A tobacco-pouch is one of the very few articles of fancy work which form an acceptable present for a gentleman; and it is one, therefore, of which new models are often demanded by our subscribers.”
Gifts for Gentleman Not Related by Blood or Marriage
In general, an unmarried Victorian lady did not give gifts to a gentleman who was not related to her by blood or marriage. However, if a Victorian lady was being courted she might give a gift to the gentleman who was courting her. And if she was engaged to be married, she would likely give a Christmas gift to her fiancé. In these cases, the gift should be inexpensive and, preferably, made with her own hand. As Mrs. Houghton’s 1893 book on the Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture advises:
“Gifts by ladies should be of a delicate nature, usually some dainty product of their own taste and skill.”
Gifts for Ladies
The Christmas gifts that a Victorian gentleman gave to his female relations were usually bought rather than made by hand. Though this might seem somewhat impersonal, it was still believed to be in keeping with the maxim that “the gift should be part of the giver.” As Demorest’s Family Magazine explains:
“In their own way young men, too, can give something which is a part of themselves, providing it is given in the true spirit, even though it is bought with money, —money which they themselves have earned.”
Gifts from Shops
The popularity of certain gifts for ladies varied from year to year. For 1899, the Sketch describes purses for opera-glasses made of “soft reindeer-skin” dyed in pale shades of mauve, grey, and light green. There were also calling card cases edged in gold; toilette sets of embossed silver; and even a pair of gold knitting needles “set with cabochon jewels” and described as being “a charming present for an old lady of active early-Victorian habits.”
Some Christmas gifts were perennial favourites. Scented soaps, sachets, and perfumes were always popular gifts for female relations and, depending on the ingredients, could be quite economical as well. Slightly more expensive were perfume bottles, jewellery boxes, work boxes, and dressing cases. Most expensive of all were gifts of jewellery, such as brooches, bracelets, or jewelled hair or hat pins.
Gifts for Ladies Not Related by Blood or Marriage
In general, gentlemen were not supposed to make gifts to unmarried ladies unless that lady was their fiancée or a relative. Even then, Mrs. Houghton declares that:
“A costly gift from a gentleman to a young lady would be indelicate, as having the appearance of a bribe upon her affections.”
Instead, etiquette decreed that a gentleman restrict himself to gifts of flowers, fruit, or candy. These gifts were perishable and therefore left no obligation upon the lady receiving them. This did not necessarily mean that they were less expensive. In fact, oftentimes it was quite the opposite. An 1868 edition of the Northern Monthly reports:
“It is a curious feature in the etiquette of Christmas gift bestowal, that a certain degree of intimacy is required before any gift of lasting and permanent value can be made. A gentleman who has but recently been presented to a lady may not offer her anything but sweetmeats or natural flowers; the gift of a piece of jewelry, or a shawl, or a costly handkerchief would be extremely mauvais ton; even a book is an unpermissible gift, be its cost never so trifling; but a gentleman who has done no more than bow in an introduction to a lady is permitted to send her a casket of bonbons costing a hundred dollars if he choose. Perhaps this is the secret of the rare boxes and silken receptacles of value which have been devised for the holding of candies.”
Victorian advice on the etiquette of re-gifting was quite simple. A gift, once received, belonged to the receiver. They could then do with it whatever they wished, even if that meant wrapping it back up and giving it as a gift to someone else. Was this always in good taste? Perhaps not, but as the 1890 edition of Good Housekeeping advises:
“It is always kindest not to dictate what shall be done with that which is sent, for the moment it leaves the donor’s hands it is the receiver’s to do as he pleases with, and if it gives him pleasure to send it to someone else or to use it in a different way from what was thought, it still expresses what was intended—a kindness.”
Victorian ladies and gentlemen were urged not to exceed their budget on Christmas gifts. This was often easier said than done. Some felt obligated to spend a great deal on the gifts they gave to friends and family in order to prove their affections. An 1887 edition of the New Outlook even went so far as to declare that, at Christmastime:
“It has reached a point where it requires moral courage to stand within the limit of one’s means and refuse to expend more than one can afford.”
Rather than go into debt to purchase Christmas gifts, the Demorest’s Family Magazine advises that:
“A simple little note, written by one’s own hand and couched in terms of kindliness that will touch a responsive chord in the heart of the recipient, is a better Christmas present than something that costs enough money to bankrupt the giver for six months.”
I hope the above has given you some idea of the types of Christmas gifts ladies and gentlemen might have bought—or made—for each other in the Victorian era. I will be taking off the next two weeks for the Christmas holidays to celebrate with my family (and to finish my animal history book before my January 1st deadline!). I wish you all a very Merry Christmas with your own families, both human and animal.
Chemist and Druggist: The Newsweekly for Pharmacy, Volume 51. London: Benn Brothers, 1897.
Cooke, Maude C. Manners and Customs of Polite Society. Boston: Geo M. Smith & Co., 1896.
Demorest’s Family Magazine, Volume 31. New York: W.J. Demorest, 1894.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. XLVIII. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1854.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. LXIX. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1864.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. LXXVII. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1869.
Good Housekeeping, Vol. 8. Springfield: Clark W. Bryan & Co., 1888.
Good Housekeeping, Vol. 10. Springfield: Clark W. Bryan & Co., 1890.
Harper’s Bazaar, Volume XII. New York: Hearst Corp., 1879.
Houghton, Mrs. Walter R. Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture; or What to Do and How to Do It. Chicago: Rand, Mcnally & Company, 1893.
New Outlook, Volume 36. New York: Alfred Emanuel Smith, Francis Walton Outlook publishing Company, 1887.
The New Peterson Magazine, Volumes 55-56. Philadelphia: Peterson’s, 1869.
The Northern Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature, Volume 2. New York: Allen L. Bassett, 1868.
Scribner’s Monthly, Volume 11. New York: Scribner & Co., 1875.
The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 28. London: Ingram Brothers, 1899.