If you were a holiday shopper in the 1830s, one item on your list might well have been an annual gift book—an anthology of illustrations, poems, stories, and essays, in an affordable but decorative binding.
Several examples of 19th century holiday gift books are now on exhibit in the ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives Research Room (ZSR 629). A Token of My Affection: 19th Century Christmas Annuals will remain on view through January.
Gift annuals became popular in the early 19th century, as mechanization of the printing and binding processes began to make books in general more affordable.
Publishers appealed to gift-buyers by packaging their books in decorated paper, silk, or leather bindings.
ZSR Special Collections holds a complete run of one of the most popular American annuals, The Token: A Christmas and New Years Present. Published in Boston, it was produced by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, a prolific author and publisher better known by his pseudonym, Peter Parley.
The Token, and its competitors in England and America, sought to appeal to both gift-buyers and young readers. Most of the early 19th century annuals are eclectic anthologies that strike a balance between educational and morally uplifting content intended to satisfy parents and other elders, and sentimental or mildly sensational stories that would keep the recipients entertained—and asking for next year’s volume.
The contents often included original contributions from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The heyday of the holiday annual anthology was the 1820s-1840s. The genre persisted throughout the 19th century, but later annuals had to compete with other types of gift books and with a flood of non-holiday-specific publications timed for the Christmas market.
Some gift annuals were published by religious, social, or philanthropic organizations. These served the dual purpose of raising funds for the organizations and for spreading their messages.
Illustrations were an important part of the gift book package. Early in the 19th century, the new technique of steel engraving allowed for a high level of detail even in small illustrations. In the 1840s, the invention of color lithography made it possible for the first time to mass produce color illustrations.
Few of the holiday gift books in ZSR Special Collections are in pristine condition. Most have been well-read, and many bear traces of their original owners.
Those of us with reading material of any kind on our holiday wish lists can’t help but feel a kinship with our fellow book enthusiasts from the 19th century and their quirky, charming, and well-thumbed gifts!
For more information about the exhibit, contact Special Collections & Archives.