On Christmas Eve 1914 readers of the Star-Telegram read these articles and ads:
Europe braced for the first Christmas of World War I. The informal “Christmas truce” notwithstanding, Germany was preparing to use forty-two-centimeter (sixteen-inch) siege guns against Warsaw, and “all the armies” were “planning to spend Christmas as best they may.”
The Westbrook Hotel had opened in 1910.
The Grinch was working the West Side. Police warned parents not to leave front doors unlocked “so Santa Claus can come in.”
W. C. Stripling had opened his department store in Fort Worth in 1893.
The Star-Telegram Goodfellows fund began in 1912. In 1914 the Goodfellows “brought cheer to 1,456 individuals.”
The post office was still using horse-drawn wagons for deliveries.
Turner and Dingee had opened in 1878, Haltom’s in 1905.
Now let’s back up one year—to Christmas 1913. This text appeared at the top of an ad for Washer Bros. men’s store in the December 14 Star-Telegram.
What, you ask, is a spug?
Here is the rest of the Washer Bros. 1913 ad. The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving was a grassroots progressive movement begun by working women in Manhattan in 1912 to protest—in general—the commercialism of Christmas and—in particular—the pressure that women store clerks felt to give their bosses Christmas gifts that the women could not afford. The women considered such gifts, which might cost a woman two weeks’ wages, to be a “Christmas tax” or “Christmas graft.”
On November 15, 1912 the New York Times announced the creation of SPUG. Interestingly, one of the founders of SPUG was a woman who never had to worry about money: Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan. (Her Manhattan townhouse is now the official residence of the secretary-general of the United Nations.) The wife and daughter of President Wilson helped form a SPUG chapter in Washington.
At first men were not allowed to join SPUG. Men could be only “sympathizers.” Ah, but then a man named “Theodore Roosevelt” asked to become a SPUG. Well, what can you say to T.R. except “Bully!”? SPUG opened a men’s auxiliary. Clip is from the December 14, 1912 New York Times.
The colonel notwithstanding, SPUG had its detractors, of course, who called the movement stingy if not downright Grinchy. Naturally retailers were among the early detractors. But retailers soon learned to appear to embrace the movement, to be SPUG-friendly, by appealing to SPUG-minded shoppers, advertising gifts that most assuredly were not “useless.”
On November 20, 1913 the Star-Telegram reported that Fort Worth women would form a local SPUG chapter. As with the national SPUG, the local SPUG chapter was ramrodded by a woman who did not have to pinch pennies: Mrs. Bacon Saunders (her husband built the Flatiron Building and was dean of Fort Worth Medical College).
Then the national SPUG made a strategic change. Before Christmas 1914, to appear less Grinchy and more generous, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving changed its name to the “Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving.”
Predictably, retailers again reasoned, “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” and appeared publically to embrace, not resent, the new SPUG. This ad by Meacham’s Department Store ran on Christmas Eve a century ago.
But, of course, by 1914 the gift-giving customs of Christmas were too firmly embedded to be dislodged by SPUG, even with T.R. leading the charge up Spend More Hill. SPUG soon went the way of other Christmas fads.