From about 1820 through 1860, gift books were a prominent component of the antebellum literary scene. Designed to be given at Christmas time, the books had covers decorated with gold and included titles like The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present or Forget Me Not: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. Each year, a new edition of these books would be released in November or early December, just in time for the gift giving season.
Gift books were hyper personal items. The books included pages at the front for notes from giver to reciever and for the owner to write their name, poems that they liked or other details from their life. The value of a gift book was not monetary, but sentimental, making each individual book different from it’s peers.
These literary treasures featured writings and art from many different sources. A wide range of poetry, prose and art from the United States and the world included a little something for every reader. Gift books contents covered topics including tales of adventure, important historic events, and maybe most surprisingly, many pieces of writing about death, mourning, heaven and the otherworldly.
The antebellum period was a time of immense change. America was in it’s century of nationhood, the railroads encouraged expansion, industrialization was begining to take shape and the role of the American family was changing. People were not dying more than the were before, but in the shadow of these changes and the anxiety they produced, the impact of death was felt more gravely.
With this in mind, what different kinds of these darker writings were featured in these generally jolly books? Why where they important to their readers? And what can we learn about the American public at the time from the combination of this content and this medium?
Emma Sarconi is a master’s candidate perusing her dual degrees in English from NYU and Library Science from Long Island University. She is concentrating on rare books and special collections and book history. This is a project that Mrs. Sarconi started in a class (Readers and Readership in Early America) taught by Patricia Crain through NYU.