In the early 1900s, long before the forces of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” amassed their armies against each other, the “War on Christmas” ravaging America was not semantic but economic. In 2012, Paul Collins looked back on an early social movement decrying that the price of gifts was too damn high. His essay is reprinted below.
Tell me, do you spend too much money during the holiday season? Do you drive yourself into tens of dollars of debt with the purchase of mere gimcracks and geegaws? Also, are you an upstanding lady ready to angrily shake your umbrella?
Then, gentle reader, you are a SPUG—or once would have been.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, a lost player in the history of political progressivism. Now largely buried in century-old newspapers, theirs is a heartwarming story that puts War back into the War on Christmas.
SPUG started with a bang at the Nov. 14, 1912 meeting of the Working Girls' Vacation Fund. Founded a year earlier to help Manhattan shop clerks set aside a little money each week, the fund had quickly grown to 6,000 members, with savings of $30,000. But those savings faced a jolly nemesis: Christmas. Sapped by the extravagant gifts that female department store clerks were pressured into giving supervisors—often to the tune of two week’s worth of wages—the fund's members took action.
"Have you ever thought that true independence often consists of having the courage to say 'No' at the right time?" fund co-founder Eleanor Robson Belmont asked a packed hall. A former actress and Manhattan grande dame, Belmont knew how to hold a stage—and this would be one her most dramatic performances yet. The best way of saying no, she proclaimed, was to band together: "Let the members of the Vacation Saving Fund feel they form a kind of group with strength to abolish any custom, even if be as old as Christmas itself, which is not for the benefit of mankind and has not the true spirit of giving behind it."
"Start the Spug Club!" a woman yelled from the crowd, and as Belmont descended from the stage to the rousing tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a new organization had begun. Arranged in "Spug Squads" of at least five members each—enough to stand up to a shift supervisor—they were to wear distinctive white buttons bearing a festive holly spray around the word SPUG. One thousand women signed up on the spot.
"BE A SPUG AND STOP FOOLISH XMAS GIVING" the New York Times announced the next day. The society's objection was not to Christmas, its founders explained, but to what it had become—a cause that found widespread sympathy in newspapers across the country. In return for the 10-cent dues pouring into headquarters at 105 West 40th Street, women received buttons and a membership card with the society's credo—"the group can accomplish what the individual cannot"—along with a space for their name and squad number.
Not everyone was pleased; some branded them "glum spugs" and predicted "death by spugitis." One fellow actress claimed Mrs. Belmont's group was nothing more than a cover for tightwads. And advertisers responded in their usual way: by instantly co-opting the movement. "RUGS FOR SPUGS," a Harlem furniture store crowed in the New York Evening World, adding its own explanation of the acronym: "Special Prices on Useful Gifts."
But there was much more to SPUG than just an attack on useless giving. It was a distinctly women's cause—a fact not lost on co-founder Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan. "The biggest thing about this really big thing is that it is the girls' own," she enthused. "They are doing it themselves."
To some, that was just the problem. While Eleanor Belmont was emphatic that men couldn't join the group ("They can be sympathizers, but not Spugs," she explained), membership requests from men tired of Christmas debt kept pouring in. Enchanted by Belmont's description of the society, Teddy Roosevelt finally put her into a particular fix. "Bully," the Times quoted his approving exclamation. "Can't I be a charter Spug?" By the next day Roosevelt was, as the Times put in a memorable headline, the "FIRST MAN SPUG."