Christmas Giving: Are you a Spug?

By Merry Carey

Are you a Spug?

To find out, ask yourself these questions: Do you believe that it is foolish to join in giving Christmas presents to those higher up? Do you believe that it is vulgar to give Christmas presents only because they are given to you? Do you believe that it is wicked to give Christmas presents without love and common sense?

In 1912, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you had what it took to become a Spug. You could get together with four others who shared your beliefs to form a Spug Squad, choose a captain, and write to the Spug headquarters in New York City for membership cards and official Spug pins. As a full-fledged Spug, your mission would be to “make as many converts as possible,” and “to eliminate by co-operative effort the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas, and to further in every way the true Christian spirit of unselfish and independent thought, good-will, and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others.”

“Spugs” were members of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving—the S.P.U.G. According to the club’s president, Mrs. August Belmont, a Spug was “a person who believes in putting soul into a Christmas present—not dollars. It is a person who believes in giving only where the heart directs—not where fear, diplomacy or the desire-to-keep-even directs, who refuses to be impoverished just for the sake of keeping up our false Christmas habit.”

Mrs. Belmont’s inspiration to found the S.P.U.G. grew out of an earlier philanthropic enterprise. In November 1911, she and other society leaders formed a Vacation Savings Fund to allow working girls to put aside a small portion of their weekly pay in a special account. When their summer vacation rolled around, the girls could use their savings to pay for transportation out of the city and two weeks’ board and lodging at a summer boarding house that had been declared safe for single working girls.

The Vacation Savings Fund members celebrated their first anniversary on November 14, 1912, with a special meeting. At this meeting, the officers of the fund asked the members why more girls did not contribute. The surprising answer was: “Christmas presents.”

To their shock, the society ladies learned that the working girls were subject to a sort of annual Christmas graft. In factories, offices, and department stores, employees were expected to take up collections to buy supervisors, foremen, department heads, and other higher-ups expensive gifts, and also to exchange gifts with fellow employees—regardless of their personal feelings for each other. Those who didn’t wish to participate in the collections and gift exchanges risked being shunned by their co-workers, harassed by their superiors, or even fired. Further inquiry revealed that workers who made as little as $11 a week often felt forced to spend $25 to $30 annually on these obligatory gifts, usually receiving in exchange only a useless knickknack or a cheap bottle of perfume. As a result, these girls, responsible for supporting themselves and sometimes their families, often found themselves unable to purchase gifts for their loved ones, or even to buy necessities for themselves.

The solution, Mrs. Belmont suggested, was strength in numbers. If the girls belonged to an organization based on the credo that Christmas giving should come only from the heart, never from coercion, they could answer gift-collection demands by politely and firmly stating, “I’m sorry, I can’t—I’m a Spug. I don’t believe in giving useless Christmas gifts.” On this basis the S.P.U.G. was quickly formed; about 50 members joined that first evening.

The New York Times reported on this extraordinary meeting the following day, and the press’s interest in the Spugs was off and running. Some reporters were in sympathy with the club’s aims, while others wrote tongue-in-cheek articles that implied that the club was a frivolous gathering of overgrown schoolgirls. But the general public loved the idea—by the middle of December, the original 50 members had swelled to over 2,000 as Spug Squads formed all across the country.

At the time, many people customarily tried to ingratiate themselves with those who were socially and financially superior by sending them expensive Christmas gifts, hoping to receive favors or expensive gifts in return—the 1912 version of keeping up with the Joneses or brown-nosing society leaders. And even 98 years ago there was the dilemma of whether to send gifts to those who had sent you gifts before, merely to avoid the embarrassment of receiving a gift without sending one. Many of these gifts consisted of expensive but useless “gimcracks” with no sentimental value that were tossed into the closet by their recipients. The public saw the Spugs as a possible solution to these problems: “I didn’t send you a gift this year because I’m a Spug and don’t believe in useless presents. But I send you my warmest Christmas wishes nevertheless.”

Some misunderstood the Spugs as approving of only utilitarian gifts. In reality, the “Useless” in the society’s name referred to the nature of the giving, not the gift itself. To a Spug, giving a tchotchke to a dear friend was just as acceptable as giving, say, a pocket handkerchief, so long as it was given with the sincere intent to make the recipient happy. On the other hand, Spugs considered it useful Christmas giving, rather than charity, to give household goods, new clothing, or other useful items to a friend who was less fortunate.

At first only women were allowed to be members, but the gender barrier fell in December 1912 when President Theodore Roosevelt asked to become a Spug. Now anyone was allowed to form a Spug Squad, send their annual dues of 10 cents to the S.P.U.G. headquarters at 105 West Fortieth Street in New York City, and receive their membership card and a handsome celluloid pin: the word SPUG surrounded by a wreath of holly. Members promised to wear their pins prominently throughout the Christmas season, spreading the mission of the Spugs and recruiting new members.

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Inevitably, the commercial sector found a way to use this rebellion against commercialism to its own advantage. As Christmas Day approached, shops and stores ran newspaper ads touting their practical, useful goods that were sure to find favor as gifts, even by Spugs.

The Spug movement continued strong in the 1913 Christmas season, when the S.P.U.G. updated its name to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving. But by the mid-1920s, the Spugs were fading into a quaint memory of the innocent 19-teens. By the time the Great Depression fell upon the United States, the Spugs had ceased to be.

But the Spug spirit remains strong anytime anyone laments the commercialism of today’s Christmas, or the insincerity of solely dutiful giving. A quote from Mrs. Belmont is as timely today as in 1912, when she said: “We no longer spell Christmas with an L for Love; we spell it now with a D for Dollars. We are commercializing the most beautiful thing in all the world—giving—and so I ask every man and woman in the whole United States to start working at once to redeem our Yuletide—to help make it mean once more what once it meant: just ‘peace on earth and good will towards men.’”

So—are you a Spug?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Merry Xmas”

Xmas isn’t costly gifts,
But loving friendly hearts;
Get four girls to think so,
And a Spug Squad starts.

Xmas isn’t cashing checks,
But mistletoe and holly;
Pick your Captain, buy your pins
And join the Spugs so jolly.

Xmas wasn’t meant for bribes
To those who stand above you!
Sign the Spug card—then you’re free
To give to those who love you.

Xmas makes too many cowards,
So come on, Spugs, be sporty!
Send your name and join the crowd
At One-o-five West Forty.

——Josephine Daskam Bacon (one of the Spug founders), 1912

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