The Short, Glorious History of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving

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Dec. 12 2014 9:27 AM

The Original War on Christmas

The short, glorious history of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

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New York City alone already had 82 Spug Squads, covering department stores across the city, and within a week of Teddy Roosevelt joining, the city squads boasted more than 2,000 women members—and 500 men. It was becoming hard for store owners to avoid the issue. "They are the ne plus ultra of the progressives in the United States," one newspaper proclaimed, and at meetings you could hear more than just Christmas being discussed—one rally speaker even proposed "an anti-marriage strike of all single working girls until a universal eight-hour labor law should be passed."

The great challenge for a Christmas movement is to keep it going after the holiday, though—and as the first glimmers of the next holiday season arrived in November 1913, the Times announced that "The Spugs are on the warpath again."

This time they boasted even more advocates, including the quiet support of some chastened department store owners. New York's district attorney spoke to a SPUG assembly of 1,200 as part of a "War on Christmas Graft," and muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell lauded the fight against "the vulgar habit of giving where when gifts are but a kind of bribe." At a Washington, D.C. rally that made front-page news, the president's daughter Margaret Wilson pointedly joined SPUG leaders onstage.

Yet cracks in the movement were beginning to appear. Advertisers used Spug sales and "Spug Directories" to sell everything from hats to magazine subscriptions, and some seemed determined to turn the movement's anti-commercial and feminist origins on its head. One Montana clothing store announced, "The Whole Meaning of the Word SPUG—Not to Spend Less for Christmas, But to Spend Wisely." Not be outdone, a Washington, D.C. retailer published a "New S.P.U.G. Notice to the Men" urging them "to give their loved ones Christmas money now"—preferably to buy their latest line of corsets.

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The clearest sign of change came in the form of their famous name: To emphasize a spirit of true generosity, it was decided that SPUG now stood for the gentler-sounding Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving. Members were urged to join a Washington-area drive to help needy families; in New York, they announced plans for a grand but useful Christmas party on Park Avenue, marked by the rather heart-rending headline "Will Make Useful Presents to Every Lonely Person Who Comes." Some 13,000 New Yorkers showed up for bags of candy, a 40-foot Christmas tree donated by the state of Maine, and a dance floor emceed by one of the most dedicated of local Spugs, the city coroner.

But aside from a final blowout dance in June 1914—"Fifteen Hundred Girls Tango While Seven Men Stand By Inactive," the New York Tribune drolly reported—soon the Spugs were melting away so quickly that, by the following Christmas, newspaper stories began with "Where are the Spugs of yesterday?"

Though one Ohio newspaper purported to explain "Spugs—Why They are Not Popular," an adjacent headline probably explained it better: "IF GERMANY WINS THIS WAR." After the start of World War I in August 1914, Anne Morgan threw herself into relief efforts for France; and with co-founder Eleanor Belmont already drifting from the group even before the war, the mighty movement slipped back into the humble women's savings fund it had sprung from.

Ironically, Spug sales outlasted the society itself. For a few years advertisers still hawked shoes for Spugs, and Oregon Gas & Electric used a "SPUGS DAY" ad to sell gas ranges. But then even those reminders vanished; today the old SPUG headquarters in midtown Manhattan is a wine bar.

Perhaps their efforts were not entirely for naught. A revival of the Victorian fad for Christmas cards came in their wake, so that instead of giving every single acquaintance a gift, Americans sent a cheap, cheerful, mass-produced expression of goodwill. (Or at least they did until Facebook killed cards off once again.) But while we're no longer badgered by our shift bosses for presents, the financial drain of holiday giving remains all too familiar. A hundred years on, besieged by status updates and credit card statements, some may come to long for those plucky Spug Squads to rise again.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.