Why Books Have Always Sold Well Before Christmas

Friendship’s Offering; and Winter’s Wreath: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for MDCCCXLII.

Published by Smith, Elder and Co. in London, 1842.

Coca Cola did not invent Christmas marketing. Enterprising publishers in the 19th century already had the idea to market books seasonally and profit from the customers’ pre-Christmas buying mood. This is how a new trend arrived on the English book market in the 1820s: the ‘gift book,’ published in November and designed as the perfect Christmas present. Once successful, the books were quickly produced serially, with new editions every year. Because a good businessman knows: not only Santa Claus returns every year, but also the demand for the prettily ornamented books that you could place under the Christmas tree for your mother-in-law…

Table of Contents.

The ‘literary wreath’

The book’s complete title is Friendship’s Offering; and Winter’s Wreath: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for MDCCCXLII and the idea of a literary wreath is actually quite fitting. After all, the gift books contained a colorful arrangement of poems, short stories, essays, and other literary short forms, complemented by pretty engravings. Popular themes were love and religion, but also classical subjects from Antiquity. A look at the table of contents and at some of the engravings further suggests that you could find another type of fiction here, which was hugely popular at the time: gothic fiction. These dark stories told of cunning monks, innocent virgins, rape, bloodshed, and ghosts. The scenery in which they were set was often inspired by generic conceptions of the European Middle Ages, meaning castles in decay, monasteries, damp dungeons, and subterranean catacombs. You may wonder how that fits with pious religious poetry? Well, the common denominator was less content than literary quality and target audience. After all, both were primarily meant as light entertainment.

Valuable art or worthless junk?

So was this literary investment worth it or only a marketing ruse to be avoided? Critics say: the latter. Although the packaging was beautiful, the books didn’t have much to say that was of worth. The poems were as pious as they were boring, the tales sentimental and predictable, the whole thing, hence, to be considered mindless entertainment. There were, mind you, some great authors to be found among the contributors such as Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, or Walter Scott, but for the most part the publications probably did not contain any literary master pieces.

Gift books – a booming market

Still, gift books were a phenomenal success on the English market. The first ones were published in the 1820s; by the early 1830s there were already more than 60 titles a year! Print runs were as high as 15,000 and the books positively flooded the market at Christmas time. Popular series were The Book of Beauty, Forget-Me-Not, The Keepsake and Friendship’s Offerings, whose 1842 edition we are looking at.

How can we account for the stunning success of these rather average-quality literary products? Several factors have to be considered here. First, print runs were much higher than they had previously been thanks to industrial mass production. Second, literacy in the country had gone up, yielding a higher number of potential readers. And third, there was a growing middle class who wanted to participate in cultural life and increasingly also had the economic means to do so. The gift books were an ideal item to satisfy the desire of the aspiring bourgeoisie to display its social status to the outside world and decorate their households with educated books. One wanted to fill one’s book shelves with heavy tomes in golden lettering, just like the aristocracy. Of course the gift books were still mass produced and had nothing to do with handicraft – but they fulfilled their purpose of signaling cultural capital well enough.

These books, however, were not only found in middle class households. In Buckingham Palace, too, you would have spotted copies of Friendship’s Offerings underneath the Christmas tree, as the provenance of some books shows. Queen Victoria, for example, was given one for Christmas in 1839 – by her mother.

But as quickly as the books had appeared on the market they disappeared again. Only a dozen titles a year were published by the late 1840s and the genre practically died out in the 1850s.

Marie Rohde de Testewsky?!

Please try to decipher the signature. Maybe you are more practiced in this skill than I am, but it took me a while and the help of several friends to do so. We – tentatively – landed on Maria Isabella of Württemberg, here in the French spelling Marie Isabelle de Wurtemberg. She lived 1871 to 1904 and in 1894 married Prince Johann Georg of Saxony. His grand-grandfather was Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and that brings us – exactly! – to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which was called Saxe-Coburg-Saalfed until 1826. Of course Albert is better known as the husband at Queen Victoria’s side. So there is a good chance that the book, printed in 1842, made its way through the hands of aristocratic relatives across half of Europe until it finally landed in Maria Isabella’s. Especially when bibliophile gifts were all the rage.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can read a digitized copy of the book on Googlebooks.

Historically there were all kinds of new year’s publications. The New Year’s Publications of the Zurich Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft for instance did not promote the value of charity but military skills.

One of Prince Albert’s biggest achievements was the Great Exhibition of 1851, an economic event of revolutionary scale.

Bookophile presented another quaint, very English genre here: A collection of popular English street cries, also from Victorian London.

Text bewerten