22 Dec 2019

The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving

From Sunday Morning, 10:35 am on 22 December 2019

It’s Christmas time and for a lot of people that means receiving gifts they neither wanted nor needed. It’s a problem extending as far back as the tradition goes.

Christmas tree near present boxes, slippers.

Photo: 123RF

Thousands of working women in the early 1900s were so irked by the hypocrisy of giving gifts and the customary practice of gifting bosses so they could be nice in return, that they banded together to rebel.

From there on the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (SPUG) was set up, with actress Eleanor Robson Belmont and J.P. Morgan's daughter, Anne Morgan, being the founding member. The group was dominated by women for so long that in fact the first reported male member was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president.

Freelance writer Livia Gershen has been researching the movement and hopes to see it resuscitated.

Like many Christmas shoppers, she finds gift searching stressful.

“I do it with a certain amount of fear that I just don’t know what the person would want, or if I get a book is it something they already have, it’s just tricky, I find it hard personally,” Gershen told Sunday Morning.

She says SPUGs are not opposed to giving gifts per se, just the excessiveness and useless ones.

“I think gifts for kids are nice, kids want fun stuff but for adults it’s a little much sometimes.”

For instance, giving cash as opposed to shopping for something may be seen as pretty crude or a sign of carelessness. But some people have called for that, Gershen says.

“Actually my parents have a tradition that they give a small cheque to everybody in the family to give to a cause of our choice, and I think that’s really nice.”

But over time, the movement was faded out by commercialism, she says.

“Some of the advertisers looked at that and said ‘hey this is good marketing, we’re going to say that we are selling useful gifts’. So rather than cutting out the commercialism it was actually able to be co-optive like so many things are by sellers.”

Purging the excessiveness of gifts would perfectly align with the increasing global interest in sustainability, Gershen says.

“I would love to see people being more conscious with just the sheer mass of stuff and I think there is the nice thing of being able to give things virtually now [like e-books].”

Although changing the ideals around a tradition that’s been going on for eons is going to be a difficult task, she says.

“As far as cutting back entirely on all of this, I think that would be nice but I’m not sure I see a ton of positive signs out there just looking around the world right now.

“I think some families ... say ‘oh we’re just going to do a Yankee Swap’ - it’s sort of what we call doing a smaller gift exchange where you’re just buying one gift for someone rather than having to buy something for everyone.”