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."
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.
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.