Unusual Gifts By the Hundred

28 July 2017

Cultural Studies | History

If, like me, you find that celebratory occasions for family and friends tend to cluster together (birthdays, weddings, baby showers, hen parties, anniversaries), you may find yourself struggling to think of appropriate and thoughtful gifts year after year. But fear not, for I have found the answer amongst documents digitised for Trade Catalogues and the American Home sourced from the Romaine Collection at UC Santa Barbara, Hagley Museum and Library and Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. With examples ranging from the 1850s to the 1970s, this resource provides a wealth of mail order catalogues distributed by helpful purveyors of gifts, curios and novelties to satisfy even the fussiest of relatives.


'Novel Gifts', Robert W Kellogg Company, 1924, Department Store and Mail Order Catalogs, © University of California, Santa Barbara. Click on the image to see this document in the collection.

The Kellogg catalogue of ‘Novel Gifts’ from 1924 show that the pressure of gift giving is not a modern phenomenon and anxious shoppers looked to gift catalogues for inspiration in same the way that we might turn to online shopping to avoid the horrors of the high street in the run up to Christmas.  The introduction to ‘Novel Gifts' states that “You could tramp up and down Fifth Avenue, New York, or State Street, Chicago, or Boylston Street, Boston, or Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, visiting this store and that, plodding wearily up one aisle and down another, without finding as many novel gifts as are shown in this catalog!”

Full of gift ideas for men, women and children these catalogues showcase the must-have items and trends of that year; for that tricky uncle who is hard to buy for, how about this ‘Barometer Flower’ which turns "pink when a storm is due, blue when days are fair”.

Or for the woman that has everything, a ‘Radium Owl – To Locate the Light in the Dark’.

Modern consumer advertising could learn a lot from the promotional literature of 100 years ago, particularly the whimsical verse accompanying each product illustration. This is a tradition we seem to have lost over the years, perhaps replaced by catchy jingles and high-budget TV adverts. I, for one, would be far more tempted to buy this duck-shaped paper clip when the duck itself assures me to “Trust your letters to me, They’re as safe as can be”.

So when you’re next stuck for present ideas, look no further than ‘Novel Gifts’, found in Trade Catalogues and the American Home, for all your gift-buying needs.

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About the Author

Ellie Davey Corrigan

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew, having joined the team in 2015. My academic background lies in Classical History and Languages but as an editor in academic publishing I have worked across a variety of subjects from Business, Marketing and Gender Studies to International Relations. I am enjoying getting back to my historical roots working on a wide range of new projects at Adam Matthew.