Below is the headline of an ad for Washer Brothers men’s store that appeared in the December 14, 1913 Star-Telegram:
“What,” I hear you ask, “is a ‘spug’?” “Were I to be called a ‘spug,’” I hear you ask furthermore, “should I take offense?”
Here is the rest of that Washer Brothers ad:
SPUG (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 of SPUG 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 had announced the creation of SPUG. Interestingly, SPUG was founded by women who personally had no need to worry about money. For example, Mrs. August Belmont was the wife of the financier/horse breeder for whom the Belmont Stakes is named. Another founder of SPUG was Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J. P. Morgan. (Her Manhattan townhouse is now the official residence of the secretary-general of the United Nations.)
And President Woodrow Wilson’s wife Ellen and daughter Margaret helped form a SPUG chapter in Washington. Ellen Wilson was honorary chair of the national chapter. (Photos of Ellen and Margaret Wilson from Wikipedia.)
In the beginning 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.
On November 20, 1913 the Star-Telegram reported that Fort Worth women would form a local SPUG chapter. As with the national chapter of 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).
The Fort Worth chapter of SPUG vowed to encourage sensible gift-giving and to oppose the “Christmas tax.”
SPUG had its detractors, of course, who called the movement stingy if not downright Grinchy. Naturally retailers were among the early detractors. But savvy 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.”
“Little space is afforded in our store for anything but sensible, practical gifts” declared the department store of future mayor H. C. Meacham.
In 1914 the national SPUG chapter made a strategic change. As Christmas neared, 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,” as reflected in this 1914 ad by Meacham’s.
Predictably, retailers again reasoned, “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” and appeared publicly to embrace, not resent, the new SPUG.
Burton’s dry goods store pointed out in 1914 that the acronym SPUG could stand also for “select practical, useful gifts.”
This Stripling’s ad is from 1915. But by 1915 the SPUG crusade was waning. The gift-giving customs of Christmas were too firmly established to be dislodged by SPUG, even with Colonel Roosevelt leading the charge. SPUG soon went the way of other Christmas fads:
… I see what they did, those sneaky retailers turned that around pretty quickly…
… I also see that 100 years ago something took maybe 2 years to go viral, and play out in another 3, and today it takes :20 to go viral will play out overnight…
… Onward we go, bravely into the unknown, we have no choice…