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In 1912, Thousands of Women Rallied Against 'Useless' Christmas Giving

Dec 22, 2016

Eleanor Robson Belmont

Eleanor Robson Belmont BAIN


The year was 1912, and the rampant commercialism of Christmas in America had begun to irritate the working women of New York City. 

Americans had been exchanging holiday gifts for centuries, after the ritual became legal in 1680 following a ban by the Pilgrims, who considered it a crass anathema. By the 19th century Christmas gifts were a firmly entrenched tradition. But by 1911, when a few dozen women in New York City formed what would later be called The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, it had reached an early fever pitch. 

The yearly emphasis on materialism annoyed the so-called Spugs, but there was also a practical complaint: the era’s custom of employees giving gifts to bosses and higher-ups in exchange for work favors. Frequently, these gifts didn’t run cheap, costing in some cases up to two weeks’ worth of wages, a tradition propelled in part by peer pressure that had grown only bigger with each passing year.

And so, with the help of two of New York richest women, the Spugs decided to strike back. 

“Are you a giver of Christmas gifts?” The New York Times reported on November 12, 1912. “If you are, do you give them in the true spirit of generosity or in the hope that you may get presents or favors in return? If that is the way you have been offering holiday remembrances, and if you wish to rebel against this hypocrisy, then you are eligible for membership in the Spug Club.”