The Book of the Boudoir; or, Memento
(Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1853)
Encased within their own gift wrap
of elaborate bindings, individual gift books of the
early to mid-nineteenth century became highly personal
and intimate exchanges of sentiment among friends,
lovers, and family members. As a genre, however,
gift books are immersed within the greater context
of antebellum America–contributing greatly
to the creation of distinctively American literature
and art, encompassing major advancements in book
printing and binding, and playing a part in key social
and political changes of the time.
Gift books are included in, and often considered
interchangeable with, the genre of literary annuals.
Annually-published compilations of prose, poetry,
and lavish illustrations, gift books were produced
to mark a specific occasion, such as Christmas, Easter,
birthdays, and weddings.
The first annuals appeared
in France and Germany in the late eighteenth century.
They were adapted from the almanac–a yearly
publication with calendars and weather forecasts–as
pictures, stories, and poems were added and bindings
became more ornamental.
The Forget-Me-Not, for 1850
(Nafis and Cornish, 1850)
In November 1822, the British publisher Rudolph Ackerman
issued what is usually recognized as the first English-language
annual, the Forget-Me-Not,
an almanac with poems and engravings. The book was extremely
popular, particularly among women,
and other publishers soon released similar offerings. The
second and one of the longest-lived in England was the Friendship’s
Offering, first published “as a Christmas Present
or New Year’s Gift for 1824.” Other popular
English titles, many of which were imported to America,
were the Literary
Souvenir, The Amulet, and The Keepsake.
Soon, American publishers began imitating the popular format.
Carey and his brother-in-law Isaac Lea, owners of one
of the country’s largest publishing houses, produced
America’s first gift book in 1825. The Philadelphia
publishers issued The Atlantic Souvenir annually
until 1832, when it merged with The Token.
The Atlantic Souvenir for MDCCCXXXI
(Carey and Lea, 1831)
At first, the American books had to compete
with British titles, but they had the market
to themselves by the mid 1840s,
when the fad passed in England. Intense competition among
American publishers limited some titles to one or two issues,
but several annuals became perennial favorites. The longest-running
titles included Rose of Sharon (18 volumes); The
and Odd Fellows Offering (12).
Although gift books did not
become generally affordable in America until
the late 1830s, they
quickly gained popularity. Within a few years,
circulation of The Atlantic Souvenir grew from
2,000 to 10,000. By mid-century, publishers
issued more than sixty titles per year. More
titles total published during what is considered
the gift book era, from 1825 to 1865.
Of the 250 American firms
that published gift books, a majority of them
were in Boston,
Philadelphia and New York. Although they were
expensive to produce, most gift books were lucrative
ventures. They became
status symbol and a
luxury people were willing to pay for. At a time
when a week's wages averaged $3.50, an average
gift book cost $2.50 to $5–some sold for
as much as $20. Comparatively, paper-bound novels
at the time cost about 37 cents.
Christmas Blossoms, and New Year's
(Phillips and Sampson, 1849)
American gift books were primarily a middle
class phenomenon, which also affected the regions
in which the annuals were published and consumed.
Publication was confined primarily to New England
because westerners were too busy on the frontier
to bother with such “refinements,” and
antebellum southern culture was based on aristocracy.
Only in the northeastern United States did a
middle class emerge prior to the Civil War. Gift
books appeared at a time when this growing middle
class had more money to spend and leisure to
devote to literary pursuits.
Although the idea came from England, similarities
between British and American gift books are few,
and the American phase of the gift book era has
its own significance. Some of
the best contemporary American binding, printing,
and art appeared in gift books. These annuals
met a demand for American culture and showed
the purchaser that his country could produce–and
would support–its own painters, engravers,
A Book for the Home Circle
(Charles Scribner, 1853)
Importance for Binding/Printing
Gift books were meant to be shown off, not
hidden on a shelf. Ornate, often to the point
the annuals held court on the parlor tables,
where they could be admired as works of art
in their own right. These books represented
the best printing and binding of the time.
As more and more gift book publishers entered
the market, they vied for consumers’ attention
with ever-finer materials and techniques.
Early gift books were bound in highly-polished,
straight-grained morocco of a dark color. Maroon,
green, black, and dark blue were the most popular.
Sheepskin (roan or skiver) and book cloth were
common bindings for cheaper books.
were elaborately tooled and later machine-embossed.
The fly-embossing press, introduced during
the mid-1820s, allowed for rich, attractive bindings
to be produced economically.
The Iris: An Illuminated Souvenir
(Lippincott, Grambo and Co.,
The invention of the stamping press in the 1830s
later allowed publishers to produce profusely gilt
bindings at even lower prices than the old embossed
As consumers sought more and more opulent bindings,
publishers began using luxurious fabrics such as
watered silk, velvet, and satin, and decorating
with mother-of-pearl inlay. Elaborate endpapers,
set featuring an engraved inscription plate, were
requisite as well. It is not surprising that bindings
comprised more than 60 percent of the budget for
producing a gift book.
Printing also was of the highest quality. Publishers
used only fine paper stock and employed the best
printers to reproduce text and embellishments. The
end result led gift book scholar Ralph Thompson to
remark that although presswork, paper, and type “varied
with the purse of the publisher and the market contemplated,” American
gift books in general “were by far the finest
books the country had produced.”
Flowers of Literature and Ladies'
(A. C. Greene, 1850)
Although the bindings of American gift books generally
followed the British trends, the literature contained
on the finely-printed pages was distinctly American.
Literature in British gift books was considered
insipid and sentimental; critics lambasted otherwise
notable writers for their abysmal contributions
to gift books. The annuals were criticized as a
benign form of popular culture that usurped the
public's attention away from valid poetic genius.
Scholars of American book history, on the other
hand, proclaim that gift book writing was “probably
undertaken in a more sincere spirit” than in
the mother country. America had a literary reputation
to make for herself, and the annuals would further
Early American writers most often penned short stories
and essays, for which the gift book was the perfect
venue. By providing a market for and encouraging
the short story form, the gift book contributed to
the advancement of that genre. It also provided a
training ground for American novelists. Furthermore,
editors insisting on native writers and themes allowed
for the establishment of distinctive American literature.
Most American writers of the early to mid-nineteenth
century–ranging from famous to obscure–contributed
to gift books. Poems, stories, and essays by well-known
authors appeared frequently, including the work of
William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel
Hawthorne, Washington Irving,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
and Edgar Allan Poe. Gift books therefore have immense
value for collectors seeking the first editions of
such writers’ works.
The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's
Present for 1840
(Carey and Hart, 1840)
The type of literature included in gift books varied
widely. Non-fiction work generally was biographical,
although descriptive and moral essays also were common.
Short stories and poetry ranged from sentimental
to scary. One type of writing that seldom appeared,
however, is humor. Although a popular genre of American
literature at mid-century, comic writing appealed
more to the lower class of society than to the middle
class associated with gift books. In addition, gift
books generally were geared toward “the religious
and moral classes of society,” invoking a more
The Christian's Daily Delight: A
Sacred Garland Culled from English and
(Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1857)
Most often, gift book fiction consisted of melodramatic
tales of romance. Death also was a frequent topic.
One story in The Atlantic Souvenir features
the death of all twenty-three characters by various
means, including murders and cannibalism. Gift book
for morbidity made Poe popular. His work–including
his famous “The
Pit and the Pendulum” (The
Gift, 1843)–appeared in several gift books.
Critics have appraised the prose in gift books as
generally good, often excellent. Poetry, on the other
hand, was considered lacking. Walt Whitman complained
that the sensitivity and refinement required for
literature prevented contributing poets from creating “worthy
native poetry” (Democratic Vistas, 1888). Furthermore,
poetic style was restrained by the fact that many
gift book editors received illustrations first and
then ordered a poem to match it.
Flora's Lexicon: An Interpretation of
the Language and Sentiment of Flowers
(Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1857)
Literary annuals also are significant for their contribution
to American art history. A majority of the illustrations
are steel engravings that reproduce paintings,
drawings, and watercolors by American artists such
as Thomas Doughty, Alvan Fisher, William Sidney
Mount, and William Guy Wall.
Each book usually contained eight to ten engravings,
each of which usually took up a full page.
Native paintings in the American gift books represent
the romantic tradition. According to David Lovejoy,
the romantic school was
school of art, “conditioned by the birth of
the new Republic and the prominent characteristics
of democracy, individualism, sentiment, and an interest
in the frontier.” American artists usually
painted American landscapes and scenes picturing
American life and people. Because America had few
art galleries in the early nineteenth century, and
the audience for art exhibits generally was limited
to the upper class, gift books helped to disseminate
American painting to the general public.
The Book of Pearls: A Choice Garland
of Prose, Poetry, and Art; Containing Twenty
Finely Executed Steel Engravings
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880)
Engravings generally were printed on leaves separate
from the text, with a thin sheet of tissue to protect
the print from the facing page. Some engravings illustrated
a story or poem, whereas others stood alone. In addition
to the illustrations interspersed with the text,
gift books usually included a frontispiece, an illustrated
title page, and embellishments (such as floral borders)
around some of the text.
By the time gift books became popular in America,
printing technology had advanced to the point of
allowing multiple impressions of fine engravings,
thanks to the steel plate. Often these were black
and white, although finer books featured hand-colored
illustrations. Later annuals included experiments
in mechanical color printing.
Although the reproduction of photographs became
possible during the gift book era, only one photograph
is known to have appeared in a gift book: the frontispiece
of Homes of American Statesmen (1854). Engravings
from daguerreotypes appeared occasionally, such as
portraits in The Gallery of Illustrious Americans,
which were engraved from daguerreotypes made by the
famous photographer Mathew Brady.
The Lady's Oracle: An Elegant Pastime
for Social Parties and the Family Circle
(H. C. Peck and T. Bliss, 1851)
The highly fanciful, romantic nature of the stories,
delicate flower illustrations, and sentimental poetry
in some gift books suggest that women and girls were
the primary audience. John Neal advised readers of
his Yankee; and Boston Literary Gazette (6 November
1828) to purchase that year’s Token “if
you have a houseful of daughters, or a wife or so
of your own.”
Not only were women the usual readers, but they
also regularly contributed stories and poems to the
annuals. The gift book coincided with the American
woman’s emergence into the world of letters.
The year after America’s first gift book was
published, a critic in the North American Review (October 1826) noted the quality and quantity of “female
literature” and its “decided important
influence over the public mind.”
Furthermore, many of the most popular gift books were edited by women. Among the best known annuals edited by women were The Oasis (Lydia Maria Child), The Opal (Sarah Josepha Hale), and The
Rose of Sharon (Sarah C. Edgarton Mayo and Caroline M. Sawyer).
The Freemason's Annual: A Gift for
All Seasons, with New and Elegant Illustrations
(Leavitt and Allen, 1854)
Gift Books as Propaganda
the end of the 1830s, organizations recognizing the
popularity of gift books had begun using them
for political ends. The Odd
of Temperance and Know-Nothing
Party often published “souvenir” books
of similar make-up to literary annuals but with
content to serve their purposes. Gift books even
were used as a campaign tool for Andrew
Jackson (The Jackson Wreath) and to gain support
for the Mexican
War (Rough and Ready Annual).
Abolitionists were by far the most active in publishing
political gift books, issuing seven annual titles:
Oasis, Freedom’s Gift, North Star, Star of
Emancipation, Liberty Chimes, Autographs of Freedom, and Liberty Bell. The latter was the most famous
and longest-lasting, published in Boston from 1839-1857
Chapman Weston and her sisters, in conjunction
with an annual anti-slavery fair.
The Rough and Ready Annual; or,
(D. Appleton and Co., 1848)
Not as elaborately
bound as other annuals due to the sobriety of the
subject, Liberty Bell generally was covered in glazed
paper or muslin, although a few issues featured tooled
leather or silk bindings.
These volumes contained
fewer illustrations than most gift books. Every issue
contained a wood engraving of a bell with the words “Proclaim
Liberty to All the Inhabitants.” Portraits
of important abolitionists were common as well.
The Liberty Bell was similar to other annuals
in its inclusion of poetry, prose, essays, and letters.
The book counted
nearly two hundred literary and humanitarian figures
among its contributors. Some famous writers, such
Barrett Browning, are among those published,
although the editors selected items based more for
their persuasiveness than literary value.
The Humming Bird, a Christmas and
(George A. Leavitt, 1869)
The popularity of gift
books eventually declined for a variety of reasons.
One was a change in
Americans experienced an increasing interest
in realism over sentimentalism, a change in
occurred partially due to the Civil War. Gift
books came to be seen more as decoration than
reading, and the literary quality declined.
Book buyers’ interest
also shifted to novels rather than short stories.
This shift can be attributed
in part to the rise of magazines, particularly literary
magazines, which published short stories and poetry
more cheaply and frequently than the gift books.
The proliferation of mass circulation newspapers
took readers from gift books by making serial
fiction widely available. Changes in publishing
that allowed for cheap fiction such as dime
unbearable competition for gift books.
Finally, changes in binding styles contributed to
the decline of the gift book. Elaborate bindings
became the norm for all books during the 1850s, but
the Civil War brought about a move toward the serious
and somber. The use of bright colors and gold stamping–the
marks of a fine gift book–were discouraged.
Because the change in literary taste had relegated
gift books to an ornamental purpose, the drab colors
and lack of ornamentation that marked 1860s binding
style rendered gift books obsolete.