Eleanor Robson Belmont (left) and Anne Tracy Morgan founded the Spugs in 1911, but it gained serious momentum in 1912, when the group expanded to about 6,000 members. (Photos: Belmont by Bain [Public domain] and Morgan by Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]/Both, Wikimedia Commons)
In 1911, a group of women banded together to rebel against the hypocrisy of giving gifts, when the only reason for giving those gifts was out of obligation or the hopes of getting something in return. They were known as Spugs, members of the The Society for the Prevention Useless Giving.
These women just may be my soul sisters. The giving of useless gifts drives me insane.
The story of the Spugs is engaging, especially as told by Atlas Obscura. Founded in 1912 by actress Eleanor Robson Belmont and J.P. Morgan's daughter, Anne Morgan, the group grew to 6,000 members in one year. They spoke out against materialism, particularly at Christmas, and they also spoke out against the expected practice of giving expensive gifts in order to gain favor.
While the society's founders could well afford to buy Christmas gifts — useless or not — many of the group's members were working women with tight budgets who had to purchase gifts that weren't necessary.
They often had to dip into their hard-earned savings to buy these gifts, and on Nov. 14, 1912, while at a meeting of the Working Girls' Vacation Fund — a group founded a year earlier to help shop clerks set aside money each week — Belmont urged the women to say no to useless gifts, according to Slate.
"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," Belmont said to rally the women. The Spug movement began in earnest that day.
This early feminist group empowered women to be in control of their hard-earned money.
A good idea, cut short
The society was short-lived, in part because the start of World War I in 1914 focused the members' attention on the larger cause of the war. But even before the war began, the group's purpose had morphed slightly, from the "prevention of useless giving" to the "promotion of useful giving," Slate notes. The name Spug still fit, but the focus was on making sure gifts served a purpose.
Yes, please, can the gifts we give at Christmas and other times of the year be useful and beneficial, given in the true spirit of giving?
I think we should all keep in mind the goal of The Society for the Prevention Useless Giving — or if you prefer the more positive phrasing, The Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving — when it comes to giving gifts. So many unnecessary gifts are given, gifts that never get used and end up being donated or put in the trash, all in the name of "giving something."
Here are just a few instances when I think we should embrace our inner Spug:
Gag gifts. Not all gag gifts are useless, but many have absolutely no practical use and are created to be opened, laughed and throw in the trash after an acceptable period of time. A quick search for gag gifts finds items like utensils for diets — spoons with holes in them and cut-off knives — that are good for nothing but a laugh (and even that's questionable).
The children's holiday shop at school. I have never seen a larger collection of plastic garbage for sale as I have at the children's holiday shop, a fundraiser my kids' elementary school held each year. Plastic jewelry for mom, tiny tools that don't function for dad, small bouncy balls for siblings — these holiday shops allow kids to buy gifts for everyone in the family for just a few dollars, but all the items are made cheaply, break easily and have no practical use. "But it's so nice to let the kids shop for their family all by themselves," people will say. I say it's nicer to teach kids that gift giving should be thoughtful and gifts should be useful.
White elephant exchanges. The original point of a white elephant exchange was to give away something that was given to you that you didn't want, with the small hope that whatever you ended up with the exchange might actually be something useful. But these days, people purchase new items when participating in exchange, and they are often gag gifts. If you're going to give something useless, at least make it something you already possess.
Goodie bags at birthday parties. I hated goodie bags when my kids were little. They were full of small plastic toys they didn't want to play and that ended up in the trash. I knew parents who believed they had to try to provide meaningful goodie bags that would be the same value as the expected gifts their child would get. That was craziness! It's OK for a child to walk into a birthday party with a gift in hand and walk out empty-handed.
Any time you give a gift. Gift giving is a wonderful practice, and with some thought put into it, useful things can be given. Useful does not necessarily mean practical or boring. Wall calendars are no longer practical since most people use the calendar on their phone or computer, but each year the boys and I give their grandparents photo wall calendars made from photos taken throughout the previous year. It satisfies the grandparents' desire to still have printed photos of the family while being a thoughtful and not budget-breaking gift. (I think the Spugs would approve.)
Thinking like a Spug has an added bonus: it makes gift giving more environmentally friendly. When we're not buying, and then tossing, useless gifts made from non-biodegradable materials, we're conserving resources on the front end and keeping junk out of landfills on the back end.