Gift books were a popular mid-nineteenth-century publication. Usually issued in a highly decorative binding and illustrated with engravings, gift books were collections of poetry, fiction (both usually of a sentintmental nature), and various non-fiction selections. Among middle-class Americans they were a conspicuous way to express friendship or love - with their fanciful bindings, gift books were intended to be displayed in the parlor where they could be seen. The audience for gift books was primarily - perhaps exclusively - women. Women also contributed to gift books; a number of the collected poems and stories in gift books were written by women. So it may come as some surprise that there were a number of gift books published in the 1840s and 1850s that were associated with exclusively male organizations like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows. Covers of two of these books are pictured here: The Masonic Offering for All Seasons (above) and The Odd Fellows' Offering for 1849 (below).
In the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives, we have a number of fraternal gift books. One otherwise excellent source on gift books placed fraternal gift books under the heading "Gift Books as Propaganda," writing, "the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, Sons of Temperance and Know-Nothing Party often published 'souvenir' books of similar make-up to literary annuals but with content to serve their purposes." While it is true that these fraternal gift books contain a majority of material that is either directly related to the organization, or which focuses heavily on the goals and tenets (e.g. friendship, love, truth, charity, benevolence, etc.) of the group, it is possible to look at these fraternal gift books in a slightly different way.
Freemasonry in the nineteenth-century lodge room was an exclusively male event. Home life, however, was different. As we've written in earlier posts, nineteenth-century women were familiar with Masonic symbols and participated in Freemasonry through the decoration of Masonic aprons, the making of Masonic-themed samplers, the making of quilts embellished with Masonic symbols, and even the illustration of a Masonic "Mark book." Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a man who was a Mason might have wanted to share his enthusiasm about Freemasonry or other fraternal organizations with a female member of his family in a way that was both culturally and fraternally approved. A fraternal gift book, given as a birthday, Christmas, or even New Year's gift, would have fit the bill perfectly.
The evidence of Masons wanting to share their knowledge about the teachings of Freemasonry with female loved ones is made explicit in these gift books. In the preface to The Masonic Offering for All Seasons, published in the early 1850s and dedicated to the "Wives, Daughters, Sisters, and Sweethearts of Freemasons," the editor writes:
"Every Society of any standing has its Annual [i.e. literary annual, or gift book]; and why not the Masonic Order? It has principles inferior to none--evidences equal to any; and, if antiquity has aught to do with the matter, Masons undoubtedly take precedence.
The gentler sex should learn more of Masonry; and this is one object of this book. It sets forth these truths that will not only prove a blessing to them, but to those around the social circle; and it will enable them more powerfully to wield that influence they are so admirably adapted to exercise, for the benefit of themselves and others."
While not all of the gift books in our collection are inscribed, some are, and show evidence of these books having been used as intended. Nearly all of these books contain elaborately decorated presentation pages, intended to be filled out by the gift-giver to the recipient. One of our copies of a Masonic gift book called The Emblem: A Gift for All Seasons, for example, reflects the nineteenth-century activity of exchanging gifts at New Year's and is inscribed to "Mollie K. Randolph, New Year's 1859."
If you're interested in learning more generally about gift books, a couple of good online resources can be found below.
"Gift Books and Annuals." American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States.
"Tokens of Affection: Art, Literature, and Politics in Nineteenth Century American Gift Books." Publishers' Bindings Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books.
To see what gift books we have in our collections, do a subject search for "gift books" in our online catalog.
Rev. John Perry and Paschal Donaldson, eds. The Masonic Offering for All Seasons: Faith, Hope, Charity. New York: Cornish, Lamport & Co., [between 1851 and 1853]. Gift of Wallace M. Gage.
Call number: RARE 60 .P463
The Odd Fellows' Offering for 1849. New York: Edward Walker, 1849. Gift of Grant B. Romer.
Call number: RARE HS997 .D676 1849
[A digitized copy is available via Google Books]