Gift Books and Annuals

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During the nineteenth century, and especially between 1830 and 1860, gift books—beautifully designed, illustrated volumes of poetry and prose—were signifi-cant components of upper-middle-class reading culture. Created by publishers to be given as gifts or purchased for home library collections, gift books were designed to be seen as well as read and signaled a kind of middle-class taste and respectability that other fiction did not carry. Related to the gift book is the annual. These terms are sometimes used synonymously, with the idea that the annual was produced by publishers of a periodical and advertised at year's end to the periodicals' subscribers. Later in the nineteenth century, however, the term "annual" came to refer to the bound volume of the magazine, sometimes issued with additional illustrations or special features that could be purchased at the year's end. Parents and grandparents would give gift volumes and annuals to children, and other adults would purchase them for family libraries. The illustrations in these volumes provide present-day readers with a sense of the literary and artistic tastes and cultural values of mid-nineteenth-century America. Both the illustrations and the text are sentimental, and pages from gift books repeatedly show tranquil scenes of mothers surrounded by children, creating the impression that nineteenth-century white middle-class homes revolved around well-ordered, mother-centered domestic spheres.


The number of illustrations in gift books ranges from four to twelve, although some have as few as one full-page of engraving opposite the title page. Usually these engravings are scattered throughout the book and reflect the themes and content of the text. David S. Lovejoy has studied volumes of The Token (first published 1828 in Boston) and the The Atlantic Souvenir (1826 in Philadelphia) and argues that these early gift books provide an interesting record of American Romantic painting, marked by the "birth of the New Republic and by those characteristics so prominent in American life in the first half of the nineteenth century: democracy, individualism, sentiment, humor, and an interest in the frontier" (p. 347). Lovejoy discusses the gift-book art of Alvin Fisher (1792–1863), George Loring Brown (1814–1849), and Henry Inman (1801–1846), all of whom produced illustrations for James Fenimore Cooper's work. Thomas Cole's (1801–1848) contributions of powerful landscape scenes to The Token are also discussed. Lovejoy points out that John Neal, an art critic writing in the early nineteenth century, reviewed the paintings published in the gift books and argued that much of the success or failure of illustrations was in the engraving process: "A long life is to be spent in diligent, exact, and laborious work; a long life in very delicate and careful experiment, before [engravers] can hope even to see the finer and more wonderful difficulties of their art" (quoted in Lovejoy, p. 360). Two engravers noted in Lovejoy's piece include E. Gallaudet, who engraved Thomas Cole's The Whirlwind for The Token in 1837, and W. E. Tucker, who engraved Alvin Fisher's The Buffalo Hunt for The Token in 1835. The paintings in gift books highlighted the work of significant American artists, and as Lovejoy notes, this "helped to popularize contemporary American painting and carry it into the homes of the people whose history, environment, and character it expressed" (p. 361).

In the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, the illustrations included in gift books and annual volumes of periodicals shifted from engravings of landscapes to portraits of human subjects and paintings of domestic scenes. The illustrations and content of Godey's Lady's Book, a periodical that ran from 1830 to 1898 under a variety of titles, influenced gift books and annuals. During the second half of the nineteenth century periodicals such as Harper's New MonthlyMagazine (1850–1900), Demorest's (1865–1890), and Scribner's Monthly–The Century Illustrated Monthly (1870–1929) included more illustrations in their publications, and the Godey's Lady's Book style of sentimental illustrations of mother and child or child and pet became more prevalent. Bradford K. Peirce's 1850 volume A Token of Friendship: Gift Book for the Holidays, for example, includes one illustration by J. Andrews and H. W. Smith titled The Watcher, which depicts a young mother or an adolescent girl watching over a baby in a parklike setting. Another illustration in this same volume, titled Beauty's Bath, shows a young girl standing on a towel holding a dog. The illustrations in both periodicals and gift books were considered valuable, and sometimes the images were removed and resold individually. During the later decades of the nineteenth century, as lithography (discovered in 1796 by Aloys Senefelder) and chromolithography began to be used more frequently in the place of steel and wood engraving and hand-coloring of plates, more gift volumes were produced with chromolithographs included at the beginning of the books. The Aldine (1868–1879), an art periodical, used chromolithographs as "premiums" in annual volumes sold at slightly higher prices. The art included in gift books and annuals influenced fashion and home design, and the art itself was often removed from the volumes and displayed in homes.

Gift books were purchased for special occasions—for birthdays or holidays—or as tokens of courtship or friendship. The design of the book as much as the content was meaningful. Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray note that many of the books that were given as gifts were not read but were seen as signs of status. Publishers and consumers

paid particular attention to types of print, binding, and format which not only suggested refinement, but conveyed more intimate messages through the color of leather, quality of paper, beauty of engravings, and selection of themes. . . . the most elaborate experimentation with the book's physical aspect as a selling point can be found in giftbooks sold mainly at Christmas and New Year's when the output of the industry intensified. (P. 605)

The Token and The Atlantic Souvenir, which were two of the best-selling, annually produced gift-book titles during the 1830s, eventually merged, and in several subsequent years volumes were titled The Token and Atlantic Souvenir. Other titles include The Opal, The Garland, The Oasis; or, Golden Leaves of Friendship, The Wide Awake Gift: A Know-Nothing Token, Autumn Dreams, and The Sapphire. Many of the volumes published between 1830 and 1860 are quarto-sized (approximately four inches by seven inches) and fairly brief—many just over a hundred pages. The covers are usually in solid colors—red, blue, or green with gilded titles and designs. The poetry and prose is frequently sentimental, focusing on such subjects as death, dreams, and the innocence of children. A small brown-and-gold volume titled Autumn Dreams (1870), by Eppie Bowdre Castlen, a poet from Macon, Georgia, offers an example, with poems such as "Autumn Days," "The Dead Infant," and "All Is Dreary Now." In a poem titled "Fifteen!" Castlen writes

. . . in all the strength
Of Womanhood, will I, down Childhood's green,
Fresh valley, cast my last and ling'ring look.

(P. 9)

Not all volumes were as saccharine as Castlen's, and many gift books contained mixtures of poetry and prose.


The sentimentality of the literature in gift books is significant because many writers of the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s both critiqued and made use of the popular interest in sentimental poetry and prose to further their own literary agendas. Jane Tompkins discusses how men who wrote during the American Renaissance resisted the widespread influence of gift-book sentimentality, while women writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) and Susan Warner (1819–1885) made use of sentiment in ways that gave them personal, professional, and political agency. Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) well-known "damned mob of scribbling women" comment shows his awareness of the popularity of short sentimental pieces written for periodicals and gift books and his position as a writer who, in order to succeed professionally, needed to some extent to use these forms to please the powerful publishing houses. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and Herman Melville (1819–1891) also explored the gothic aspects of the sentimental and used the popularity of the gift-book form to support their literary careers.

Hawthorne's critique of women's participation in the writing profession and of their successful use of sentimental poetry and prose intersects in interesting ways with Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) publication of Leaves of Grass, which first appeared in 1855 and drew on gift-book conventions in its size and title format. This volume also challenged these conventions by addressing sexuality, social classes, racism—aspects of human experience never honestly or fully explored in nineteenth-century gift books. Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) novel Moods (1864) contrasts Whitman's Leaves of Grass with more sentimental publications in an exchange between two young people at the very beginning of their courtship. Adam Warwick, a character Alcott possibly modeled after Henry David Thoreau, offers the main character Sylvia two books, saying "in one you will find much falsehood in purple and fine linen, in the other some truth in fig-leaves" (p. 43). The "purple and fine linen" suggests the beautiful and elaborate designs of gift books, with the "fig-leaves" indicating Whitman's bold and groundbreaking use of the physical and the erotic. Later, reinforcing Ronald Zboray's theory that gift books are not read so much as used as props to support courtship, friendship, and kinship rituals, Warwick puts aside Leaves of Grass: "Warwick resumed his seat and the 'barbaric yawp,' but seemed to find Truth in demi-toilet less interesting than Youth in a gray gown and round hat, for which his taste is to be commended" (p. 44). In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Mark Twain (1835–1910) satirizes the sentimental poetry of the 1850s in his description of Emmeline Grangerford's poem "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd." (pp. 122–123). Despite these critiques, the sentimental poetry in gift books was widely circulated, and because these books were so frequently given, they influenced literary tastes. They also continue to shape understandings of nineteenth-century culture.

Subtitles used for gift books indicate whether volumes focus on religious, political, or more general subjects, as can be seen in Sarah Josepha Hale's (1788–1879) The Opal (1845), subtitled A Christian Gift for the Holy Days and designed to be given at Christmas. At other times general titles offer no suggestion of the content of the gift book. For example, The Garland, published by Philadelphia's J. B. Lippincott in 1868, indicates merely that it contains "selections from various authors," but all of the poems are religious. John Greenleaf Whittier's (1807–1892) "Gone" appears:

Many pieces in the 1855 gift book The Oasis; or, Golden Leaves of Friendship, are anonymous, but some of the listed contributors include "Mrs. Child," "H. F. Gould," and "Mrs. Hemans." Goodwin Barnby's poem "Give Me the Hand" appears opposite Mrs. Child's moralistic fable about two princesses, "The Palace of Beauty." Both pieces offer a sense of the didacticism and sentimentality that is prevalent in the gift books of this period.

Give Me the Hand

Give me the hand that is warm, kind, and ready;
Give me the clasp that is calm, true, and steady;
Give me the hand that will never deceive me;
Give me its grasp that I aye may believe thee.
Soft is the palm of the delicate woman!
Hard is the hand of the rough, sturdy yeoman!
Soft palm or hard hand, it matters not—never!
Give me the grasp that is friendly forever.
Give me the hand that is true as a brother;
Give me the hand that has harmed not another;
Give me the hand that has never forswore it;
Give me its grasp that I aye may adore it.
Lovely is the palm of the fair, blue-veined maiden!
Horny the hand of the workman o'erladen!
Lovely or ugly, it matters not—never!
Give me the grasp that is friendly forever.
Give me the grasp that is honest and hearty,
Free as the breeze, and unshackled by party;
Let friendship give me the grasps that become her,
Close as the twine of the vines of the summer.
Give me the hand that is true as a brother;
Give me the hand that has wronged not another;
Soft palm or hard hand, it matters not—never!
Give me the grasp that is friendly forever.

From "The Palace of Beauty"

In ancient times, two little princesses lived in Scotland, one of whom was extremely beautiful, and the other dwarfish, dark-colored, and deformed. One was named Rose, the other Marion. The sisters did not live happily together. Marion hated Rose because she was handsome, and every body praised her. She scowled, and her face absolutely grew black when any one asked her how her pretty little sister Rose did; and once she was so wicked as to cut off all her glossy, golden hair, and throw it on the fire. Poor Rose cried bitterly about it; but she did not scold or strike her sister, for she was an amiable, gentle little being as ever lived. No wonder all the family and all the neighborhood disliked Marion, and no wonder her face grew coarse and uglier every day. The Scotch used to be very superstitious people, and they believed the infant Rose had been blessed by the fairies, to whom she owed her extraordinary beauty and exceeding goodness.

Ferguson, ed., The Oasis, pp. 50, 51.

Another hand is beckoning us,
Another call is given;
And glows once more with angel-steps
The path which reaches heaven.

(P. 200)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807–1882) "A Psalm of Life" is also printed in this volume:

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
"Life is but an empty dream!"
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

(P. 110)

James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), who edited the Atlantic Monthly from 1857 to 1861, a periodical that shaped regional and national literary tastes, published many pieces by Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Whittier, among others, and although this periodical did not contain as many illustrations as Harper's and Scribner's, its literary content was certainly reproduced in many gift books and annuals. The presence of so many of the so-called Fireside Poets in the gift books and annuals accounts in some ways for their popular appeal throughout the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The Fireside Poets' popular presence and the sentimental content and structure of their poetry also helps to explain their marginalization from ongoing academic attention and literary scholarship. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, they did not succeed in critiquing the form as they participated in it. Perhaps because of the earnestness of these poets, late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century critics have largely avoided in-depth study of their significance, although more serious consideration of their literary, political, and social contributions is certainly warranted.


Some political groups used the popularity of the gift-book form to forward specific causes or special interests. The Wide Awake Gift: A Know-Nothing Token, which was published in 1855, supported the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist party that rose to prominence in the middle of the 1850s. The title page states that it is "edited by 'one of 'em'" and also has the motto "Put None but Americans on Guard to-night." The preface continues the nativist theme: "Having culled our bouquet from among the choicest flowers of native Eloquence and Poetry, we lay the Patriotic Offering upon the altar of American Liberty, believing that the incense thereof will prove a 'sweet-smelling savor' in the nostrils of all those who love the aroma of their native land." The editor is not named, but pieces by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Cullen Bryant appear as representative American pieces alongside "The Star Spangled Banner," the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. This volume contains several illustrations, including engravings of portraits of Daniel Webster and Martha Washington, which are signed by the engraver J. C. Buttre.

The abolitionist movement used gift books to circulate antislavery messages, and in one of the most substantive studies of these books, Ralph Thompson argues that the move to didactic and political topics is part of the reason the number of gift books produced decreased toward the end of the century: "The Liberty Bell is the last of a dozen major gift-book series, a sort of mistaken attempt to impose a semi-realistic burden upon an essentially romantic literary vehicle" (p. 164). Thompson notes that the Liberty Bell was published annually by Maria Weston Chapman and other Boston abolitionists between 1839 and 1857, with breaks in the years 1850, 1853, 1854, and 1859. Poems by Emerson and James Russell Lowell appear in the Liberty Bell volumes, and Thompson explains that unlike other annuals, which focused on making gift books an American form that celebrated American writing, the Liberty Bell included pieces by British and European writers including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Fredrika Bremer. Thompson points out that it is significant that Whittier did not contribute to this publication, although his abolitionist poetry appears in Lydia Maria Child's antislavery gift book The Oasis, which was published in Boston in 1834. Other significant antislavery annuals mentioned by Thompson are The North Star, published in Philadelphia in 1839, and Freedom's Gift; or, Sentiments of the Free, published in Hartford in 1840. Because these gift books were not as well funded as those produced by larger publishing houses, they contain fewer illustrations and their cover designs are less elaborate, although in size, shape, and variety of content, they follow the gift book format.

Some of the smaller, less elaborate gift books were produced for a cause or a charity. The Harbinger: A May-Gift provides an example. This text, published in Boston in 1833, is dedicated "to the ladies who have so kindly aided the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind"; pieces include the "Hymn for the Blind" and "Lines Spoken by a Blind Boy." In addition to the poems about blindness, a few of the poems examine the lives of women. These poems, presumably written by the residents of the school for the blind, have a dark, almost sinister humor that contrasts with the other saccharine poems about death and love. "My Aunt" reads,

My aunt! My dear unmarried aunt!
Long years have o'er her flown;
Yet still she strains the aching clasp
That binds her virgin zone.

(P. 44)

The poem goes on to lament the aunt's failure to accept her spinster status. Another poem about a man who murders his wife is titled "The Screeching Lady." Her scream continues to haunt the place where she dies:

it chills the blood in their veins to hear
That terrible voice come shrill and clear.
And the curse, they say, will never more
Pass from the cliffs of that fated shore!

(P. 89)

This gift book does not have any illustrations, and only a few poems are signed.


Gift books designed for general occasions, rather than for specific holidays, contain mixtures of poetry and prose. The Oasis; or, Golden Leaves of Friendship, an 1855 gift volume edited by N. L. Ferguson, explains its purpose in its introduction:

We have culled from many of the flowers, and have endeavored to form such an arrangement of prose and poetry, combined with moral and religious sentiment, as, we trust, will not only amuse and be acceptable to the reader, but that the good impressions left on the mind may have a tendency to elevate, and stimulate, to higher and more intellectual attainments.

Although this volume does not indicate that it is intended for women, many of the articles, stories, and poems focus on women's lives. A poem on the title page reads,

A perfect woman, nobly planned
To warm to comfort, and command,
And yet a spirit, still and bright,
With something of an angel's light.

A short fairy tale signed by Mrs. Child (probably Lydia Maria Child, 1802–1880) and titled "The Palace of Beauty" tells of two little princesses named Rose and Marion. Other titles include "A Dressy Woman," "Economy and Her Daughter," and "Woman, Man's Best Friend." Most are heavy-handedly didactic and seem designed to provide advice about courtship, marriage, and women's duties to their families.

Not all gift books are so obviously didactic. The Sapphire: A Collection of Graphic and Entertaining Tales, Brilliant Poems and Essays, edited by Epes Sargent (1813–1880), was published in 1867. A subtitle indicates that the pieces were "gleaned chiefly from fugitive literature of the nineteenth century," and many of the texts are reproduced from French, German, and English publications of the 1820s and 1830s. Titles include "The Beggar-Girl of the Pont-des-Artes" and "The Bellows-Mender of Lyons." This gift book is part of "The Gem" series produced by John L. Shorey. The Emerald is another gift book in this series edited by Sargent.

Gift books were also produced for children. Lydia Maria Child produced several of these, which combined original material with pieces that had been previously published in the Juvenile Miscellany. Flowers for Children was published in 1844. Child's "The Little White Lamb and the Little Black Lamb" provides an example of her abolitionist writing for children: "God made the white lambs, and the black lambs. God loves them both, and made them to love each other" (p. 133). This gift book combines fiction and nonfiction prose and poetry, and several wood engravings are scattered throughout the volume.

Some of the most interesting details of gift books are not in the published texts or illustrations but in inscriptions that provide evidence that these books really were given as gifts and were read. A copy of The Harbinger bears the inscription "presented to Miss Sarah Johnson by her Aunt Caroline Johnson." Dated 25 December 1844, a copy of The Opal states in large, elaborately curled letters that it was "presented to Mary Ann Moore by her brother Samuel R. G. Searle." Cliff G. Pope, who evidently owned Autumn Dreams, signed and dated his copy several times—in 1877 from Columbus, Georgia; in 1877 from Muscogee County, Georgia; in 1880 from Fulton County, Georgia; and in November 1883 from Atlanta, Georgia. These multiple markers of ownership are all in pencil, but they show that he opened this gift book multiple times and in several places, suggesting either that he was moving to different homes or that the book was small enough to carry with him on his travels. Each inscription names the readers or the intended readers, and two of these inscriptions provide evidence that these books were used to maintain kinship ties through gift rituals.

Gift books and annuals provide important records of how reading material was used to establish and maintain courtship and friendship ties. These beautifully designed volumes also provide insight into shifts in national literary tastes and developments in illustration technology. The popularity and sentimentality of gift books and the uses of these characteristics to further political and cultural agendas are also significant to any study of the print culture of the mid-nineteenth century. These are important artifacts of book history and of literary and national culture, and ongoing study of this form will produce interesting questions and conclusions about their influence in constructing ideas of Americanness, citizenship, notions of the literary and the artistic, and their connections to childhood and womanhood in the United States.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Book and Periodical Illustration; Children's and Adolescent Literature; Fireside Poets; Leaves of Grass;Religion; Sentimentalism; Taste


Primary Works

Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. 1864. Edited by Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Castlen, Eppie Bowdre. Autumn Dreams. New York: D. Appleton, 1870.

Child, Lydia Maria. Flowers for Children. 1844. New York: C. S. Francis, 1854.

Ferguson, N. L., ed. The Oasis; or, Golden Leaves of Friendship. Boston: Dayton and Wentworth, 1855.

The Garland: Selections from Various Authors. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1868.

Hale, Sarah Josepha. The Opal: A Christian Gift for the HolyDays. Illustrated by J. G. Chapman. New York: J. G. Riker, 1845.

The Harbinger: A May-Gift. Boston: Carter, Hendee, 1833.

Peirce, Bradford K. The Token of Friendship: A Gift Book for the Holidays. Boston: Charles H. Peirce, 1850.

Sargent, Epes. The Sapphire: A Collection of Graphic andEntertaining Tales, Brilliant Poems, and Essays. Boston: John L. Shorey, 1867.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Norton critical edition. Edited by Thomas Cooley. New York: Norton, 1999.

The Wide-Awake Gift: A Know-Nothing Token for 1855. New York: J. C. Derby; Boston: Phillips, Sampson; Cincinnati: H. W. Derby, 1855.

Secondary Works

Booth, Bradford A. "A Note on an Index to the American Annuals and Gift Books." American Literature 10, no. 3 (1938): 349–350.

Griffits, Thomas E. The Rudiments of Lithography. London: Faber and Faber, 1956.

Lovejoy, David S. "American Painting in Early Nineteenth-Century Gift Books." American Quarterly 7, no. 4 (1955): 345–361.

McLean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Renier, Anne. Friendship's Offering: An Essay on the Annuals and Gift Books of the Nineteenth Century. London: Private Libraries Association, 1964.

Risley, Kristen A. "Christmas in Our Western Home: The Cultural Work of a Norwegian-American Christmas Annual." American Periodicals 13 (2003): 50–83.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Thompson, Ralph. "The Liberty Bell and Other AntiSlavery Gift-Books." New England Quarterly 7, no. 1 (1934): 154–168.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. "Books, Reading, and the World of Goods in Antebellum New England." American Quarterly 48, no. 4 (1996): 587–622.

Lorinda B. Cohoon