Every year around this time, amid the dull din of a hurried holiday rush, it's not uncommon to hear shoppers bemoan that the true spirit of the season is slipping away (perhaps even as their carts teem with bound-to-be-forgotten gifts). But a century ago, folks were likewise fed-up with the culture of mindless consumerism. And in one of the most fascinating, little-known chapters of American history -- they waged a war that even Presidents would join.
In 1911, faced with a surmounting culture of buying cheap, throwaway presents to give for Christmas, philanthropist August Belmont announced before a crowd of low-paid working woman at an event in New York City the formation of a new club: The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.The objective of SPUG, said Belmont, was to "eliminate, by co-operative effort, the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas, and to further in every way the true Christian spirit of unselfishness and independent thought, good-will, and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others."
Though it might have been a radical idea to shun the cheap trinkets and easy mindlessly popular gifts beckoning from behind store windows, by December of 1912 thousands of 'Spugs' had joined the Society. Membership was so strong, that SPUG's 10 cent dues helped fund America's first community Christmas Tree ceremony in New York's Madison Square Park.
It wasn't long before SPUG buttons began appearing on the lapels of men as well. In fact, a New York Times article from December 14, 1912, introduced the Society's first branch for men, led by none other than a former President:
Col. Theodore Roosevelt is the head of the masculine branch of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. The selection was not only appropriate, it was inevitable. No other American knows quite so much as Col. Roosevelt about the art and practice of giving, useless and otherwise. [...]
Promiscuous and needless Christmas giving, often enforced by custom, has been a growing evil. The good cheer of the season has been considerably diminished in many households for that reason. The society organized by Mrs. Belmont has useful work to do.
Soon, SPUG chapters began to spring up across the country. Even Margaret Wilson, daughter of the then-sitting president, joined the movement to end useless gift giving. The New York Times reports, in 1913, that she founded the Washington D.C. wing of SPUG, and quotes her as proclaiming: "Spugs [might] alter the whole Christmas spirit all over this mighty and prosperous land."
There's no telling if the awareness campaign of SPUG in the early 1910s really put a dent into the market for cheap consumer goods, but the Society did remain active until to the 1940s, when mindless consumer tendencies were limited by WWII rationing. When the gift-giving doldrums broke by the 1950s, however, the SPUG's humble mission to shop with usefulness in mind seems to have fallen by the wayside.
In light of today's consumer culture, which makes that in the early part of the last century seem like child's play, perhaps it's time for a revival of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.