Famous and Forgotten Literature: Early 19th Century “Gift Books”
Literary annuals (or “gift books”) were a phenomenon in early 19th-century America, usually published in the fall of the year, just in time for Christmas and New Year’s gift giving. Following European and British precedents, the small volumes were bound elegantly in green or scarlet cloth or morocco leather, with gilt embossing and page edges. Inside, embellishments such as fine engravings or tinted illustrations, accompanied a potpourri of essays, prose, and poetry.
Some gift books were social or political reform propaganda in disguise, such as the Sons of Temperance Offering for 1850 (shown below left), edited by Timothy Shay Arthur, who in 1854 wrote the prohibition novel, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There.
Others included stories which would ultimately stand the test of time and become classics of modern literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, published over twenty-five short stories in various periodicals and gift books. In 1837 he compiled these works into his famous volume called Twice-Told Tales ~ the stories, after all, had already been told.
Published in 1838, The Token, or Affection’s Gift, A Christmas and New-Year’s Present (shown above right), included four additional stories by Hawthorne (although he was not yet famous enough to be named as their author):
These were eventually incorporated into Hawthorne’s 1842 reprint of the Tales...and all subsequent editions (to be told again...and again).
For a comprehensive history of gift books read: American Literary Annuals & Gift Books, 1825-1865, by Ralph Thompson, 1936.