Silver Pickle Dishes, Wax Dolls, and Handcrafted Calendars: the 100-Year-Old Gift Guide

It’s December, and that means that many of us get to give and receive gifts. And the right gift can really add to that holiday magic! I investigated what gifts people may have given each other a hundred years ago by looking at historical newspapers in the Library’s Chronicling America database. Let’s take a look!

This ad in a newspaper from 1916 gives us a glimpse into what people may have been buying for each other.

The commonwealth. (Scotland Neck, N.C.), 12 Dec. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Take a close look together: see if you and your child(ren) can find the earrings, the tea set, an ornament, and a pocket watch. Have you ever given or received one of these? Is there something you might want to get? What gift would you treasure? What might a modern version of this list look like? Is there something you don’t recognize? Imagine what the mysterious items might be for.

Or read this list of possibilities together in this ad that appeared in a Hawaiian newspaper in 1881. Can you find the pickle dish, the “whatnot,” and the “walking automatons”? Can you find any similar items from the ad above? Which items do you still use today and what do the modern versions look like? Which items are now obsolete? Take a look online together to see if you can identify what these items might have looked like!

What other curious items can you find on these lists?

The Hawaiian gazette. (Honolulu [Oahu, Hawaii]), 21 Dec. 1881. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. 

Maybe you’re thinking of making a gift this year instead of buying one. Here is a suggested craft from 1911 that you can easily make as a family: a personalized calendar! It makes a great last-minute gift, too. The materials you need are:

  • a piece of cardboard or cardstock
  • glue or any other type of sticky paste
  • a picture (or several) of your choosing
  • a hole punch
  • a piece of ribbon ribbon
  • a small calendar, printed or hand-drawn

The day book. [volume] (Chicago, Ill.), 04 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Take a close look together at the hand-made calendar above. What details do you see? Notice the textures of each element in the calendar. Even though it’s a black and white image, what colors do you imagine are in the picture? What colors will you use? How do you think a receiver of this handmade gift felt? What do you want the person receiving this gift to feel? Consider their response as you make this craft as a family.

Read the instructions listed in the article. The written and numbered instructions are adapted below:

  1. Choose a photograph or a pretty picture.
  2. Paste it carefully on an oblong piece of thin cardboard. If you are using a photograph, be careful to only use the paste across the upper edge.
  3. Punch large holes in the cardboard. Use a ribbon to weave it through the holes.
  4. Paste a small calendar below the image.

What written message would your family want to share with the receiver of your gift? What other decorations can you add? What image might you choose to represent this year’s holiday cheer or your hopes for 2022?

Historical newspapers are a wonderful way to glimpse the lives of people from 100 and more years ago. Whatever may be in your Christmas stocking or on your festive table, we hope that we were able to add a little joy to your year and a few chances to get to know the people that lived in the past.

We hope that you all have a lovely wintertime and a joyful holiday season!

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