A Victorian Lady's Christmas Gift Guide

“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.

An elegantly dressed couple walk arm in arm under an umbrella, 1905.
(Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0)

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!’”

Vestal Shaving-Soap Vase, Chemist and Druggist, 1897.
Vestal Shaving-Soap Vase and Cold Cream Soap, Chemist and Druggist, 1897.

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.”

Homemade Gifts

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.”

Tobacco Pouch, Godey's Lady's Book, 1869.
Tobacco Pouch, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1869.

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.

Novelties at Mappin and Webb's, The Sketch, 1899.
Novelties at Mappin and Webb’s, The Sketch, 1899.

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.”

Christmas Callers, Century Magazine, 1904.

Re-Gifting

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.”

Holiday Budget

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.”

In Conclusion

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.

The First Commercially produced Christmas card, 1843.
The First Commercially produced Christmas card, 1843.
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

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.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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31 Comments on "A Victorian Lady’s Christmas Gift Guide"

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nottooshabby
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lovely — and thank you for these posts — a delight to read, especially in these dark political times….

Mimi Matthews
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You’re very welcome :) I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

victorochoa2016
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Yet another gorgeous post. You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Mimi. And a Merry Christmas to You! Vic

Mimi Matthews
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I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Vic :) Merry Christmas!

Brenda Scruggs
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Thanks for the post. It’s a right on article. I began doing research for a book that I’ve started and this helped out a lot. Very interesting.
Merry Christmas!

Mimi Matthews
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I’m so glad you found it helpful, Brenda :) Merry Christmas to you, too!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
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As always wonderful and informative.

Mimi Matthews
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Thanks, Lindsay :) I’m so glad you liked it!

Pam Shropshire
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I enjoyed this a lot! I’m happy to know that selecting appropriate gifts for a man has always been difficult! I am a paralegal for a solo attorney and consequently, we spend a lot of time together and we get along well. He’s more than just a boss yet not quite a friend. I try to give him a nice gift, but it’s difficult to find something unique and personal, yet not TOO personal. In the past, I’ve given him things like a leather wallet, a cashmere sweater vest, a felted-wool fedora, and silk ties.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Pam :) And you’re right. Choosing appropriate gifts for men is still a challenge. You’ve done really well with the gifts for your boss!

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Regan Walker
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A fun post, Mimi! I shared on Facebook and Tweeted.

Mimi Matthews
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Thanks so much for sharing, Regan :) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

Marg Parsons
Guest

What an enjoyable post! It appears that the struggle to find just the right gift hasn’t changes over the decades!

Mimi Matthews
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I’m glad you liked it, Marg :) Thanks for your your comment!

milliethom
Guest

An interesting and fun post. The problems of finding just the right gift hasn’t changed a great deal since Victorian times, although what was considered ‘appropriate’ certainly has. As an older lady, and a knitter, I’m wondering whether I’ll get any gold knitting needles this year. :D

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Millie :) Those knitting needles would have been a luxurious gift for someone who loves to knit! I was curious what they might have cost, but sadly couldn’t find a price.

seaofgold2012
Guest

A lovely post for the Christmas season; your choice of illustrations added so much to the experience. Nothing has changed when it comes to selecting gifts for men. Generally speaking if they really want it, they have acquired if for themselves. If they haven’t, its something way out of the Christmas budget.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m glad you enjoyed it :) And very well put about the difficulties in buying for men. Thank goodness for small electronics and gadgets! Without them–and books and dvds–it would be so much harder to find men’s gifts for Christmas.

seaofgold2012
Guest

Thank heavens books and DVDs are no longer considered personal gifts 😊.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Very informative and interesting how concerns over suitability of the gift, budget and the issue of re-gifting has not gone away. Many thanks and Merry Christmas to you!

Marina Costa
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Reblogged this on Marina Costa.

Vickie
Guest

A very timely article and entertaining….Merry Christmas!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed it :) Merry Christmas to you, too!

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jeanne229
Guest

Lovely post. Wish I had read it before I’d finished my holiday shopping. Quite good advice on spending even today. And of course some gifts never lose their appeal. Soaps have been my mainstay gift since I began to shop for the special people in my life. Enjoy your break!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much, Jeanne :) You’re so right about some gifts never losing their appeal. Even today, sets of perfumes & soaps are always featured at departments stores for holidays!

Angelyn
Guest

Another post for the Gilded Age research folder. I particularly liked the well-worded advice on regifting:

“…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.”

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Angelyn :) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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