Tokens of Affection: Art, Literature, and Politics
in Nineteenth Century American Gift Books

 
 

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The Book of the Boudoir; or, Memento of Friendship
(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.

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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. Henry 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.

     
 

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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 Token (15), 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 than 1,000 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 a parlor 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.

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Christmas Blossoms, and New Year's Wreath
(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, literature, 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, and authors.

     
 

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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 of gaudiness, 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.

These bindings 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.

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The Iris: An Illuminated Souvenir for MDCCCLI
(Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1851)

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 designs.

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, the front 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.”

     
 

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Flowers of Literature and Ladies' Keepsake
(A. C. Greene, 1850)

Literary Importance

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 this end.

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.

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The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1840
(Carey and Hart, 1840)

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 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 sober tone.

     
 

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The Christian's Daily Delight: A Sacred Garland Culled from English and American Poets
(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 readers’ penchant 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 gift book 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.

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Flora's Lexicon: An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers
(Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1857)

Artistic Importance

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 America’s first 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.

     
 

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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.

Social-Political Importance

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The Lady's Oracle: An Elegant Pastime for Social Parties and the Family Circle
(H. C. Peck and T. Bliss, 1851)

Feminine Appeal
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).

     
 

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The Freemason's Annual: A Gift for All Seasons, with New and Elegant Illustrations
(Leavitt and Allen, 1854)

Gift Books as Propaganda

By the end of the 1830s, organizations recognizing the popularity of gift books had begun using them for political ends. The Odd Fellows, Freemasons, Sons 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 by Maria Chapman Weston and her sisters, in conjunction with an annual anti-slavery fair.

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The Rough and Ready Annual; or, Military Souvenir
(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 as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, are among those published, although the editors selected items based more for their persuasiveness than literary value.

     
 

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The Humming Bird, a Christmas and New-Year's Gift
(George A. Leavitt, 1869)

Decline

The popularity of gift books eventually declined for a variety of reasons. One was a change in readers’ interests. Americans experienced an increasing interest in realism over sentimentalism, a change in mood that occurred partially due to the Civil War. Gift books came to be seen more as decoration than serious 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 also took readers from gift books by making serial fiction widely available. Changes in publishing that allowed for cheap fiction such as dime novels created 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.

Search the PBO database for gift books

Suggested Readings

Dickinson, Cindy. “Creating a World of Books, Friends, and Flowers: Gift Books and Inscriptions, 1825-1860.” Winterthur Portfolio 31 (1996): 53-66.

Faxon, Frederick W. Literary Annuals and Gift Books: A Bibliography, 1823-1903. Boston: Boston Book Co., 1912 (reprint ed., 1973, includes an essay on gift book binding by Eleanore Jamieson and an essay on illustrations by Iain Bain).

Kirkham, E. Bruce, and John W. Fink, comp. Indices to American Literary Annuals and Gift Books, 1825-1865. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications, Inc., 1975.

Lovejoy, David S. “American Painting in Early Nineteenth-Century Gift Books.” American Quarterly 7 (1955): 345-361.

Hutchinson, Earl R. “Giftbooks and Literary Annuals: Mass Communication Ornaments.” Journalism Quarterly 44 (1967): 470-474.

Thompson, Ralph. American Literary Annuals & Gift Books, 1825-1865. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1936.

______________. “The Liberty Bell and Other Anti-Slavery Gift-Books.” New England Quarterly 7 (1934): 154-168.

Related Online Resources

Gift Books, Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gold-Stamped Publisher’s Bindings of the Nineteenth Century, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/exhibitions/gilded/html/case5.html

Gift Books and Annuals, The General Collections, American Memory, Library of Congress:
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awgc1/gift.html

Gift Books and Annuals, Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, John Hay Library, Brown University: http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/University_Library/collections/harris/Harris.GiftB.html

Literary Annuals, American Antiquarian Society: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/annuals.htm

                       
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