A 19th-Century Fad: The Illustrated Gift Annual

This post was written by Miranda Schwartz, cataloging assistant.

Title page from The Token: a Christmas and New Year’s present. Boston: Published by Gray and Bowen, 1828.

The New-York Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library has a rich collection of about 500 English and American gift annuals. What is a gift annual? the modern reader may well ask. It’s an annual compendium of poetry and prose, usually heavily illustrated, gilt-edged, and bound in embossed leather or gold-blocked cloth. These annuals were popular gifts for women and children in the mid-19th century. Where today we might give someone a gift card to a big box store, 19th-century gift givers had the option of giving a gift annual.

The annuals, with their sentimental tales of virtuous maidens, heroic gallants, precocious children, devoted lovers, and their over-romantic engravings of dramatic scenes, are more than the sum of their parts. Dated though they may seem to us, we should not dismiss them out of hand; they have real cultural value. Reading them gives a window into what the early and mid-Victorian world designated as appropriate for women. Women were generally believed to have narrow domestic interests—and the stories in the gift annuals gave them just that. Many of these gift annuals were also given to children: They served as vessels through which to foster shared values and standards. Looking at them this way, we see a rich vein of material for researchers to explore.

The gift annuals (also called gift books or literary annuals) in the N-YHS collection have such delightful titles as: Forget Me Not, Christmas Blossoms and New Year’s Wreath, Keepsake of Friendship, The Poets’ Offering, etc. Though many gift annuals had religious articles in them, some, such as The Rose of Sharon and The Religious Souvenir, contained exclusively religious content.

Title page from The Religious Souvenir, Philadelphia: Published by Key & Biddle, 1834.
Title page from The Religious Souvenir, Philadelphia: Published by Key & Biddle, 1834.

Frederick F. Faxon, whose Literary Annuals and Gift Books: A Bibliography, 1823-1903 was an invaluable resource in the cataloging of N-YHS’s annuals, cites the 1823 publication of The Forget me not as the first British gift literary annual. The annuals quickly caught on and Faxon doesn’t hesitate to call their rapid rise “a fad or craze.” But, he goes on to write, “the decline was as rapid as the rise”: By the late 1850s the gift annual craze had peaked in England.

Early on, intrepid American entrepreneurs saw the lucrative popularity of these English publications and quickly moved to start their own craze. The year 1826 saw the first American gift annual published in Philadelphia: The Atlantic Souvenir. And it was off to the races for these publishers, as they rapidly released scores of their own gift annuals. Though some lasted only a year or two, others carried on for longer than that: The Gift of Friendship (1847-1855); The Token (1828-1842).

As a look at Faxon’s work and at Ralph Thompson’s American Literary Annuals & Gift Books, 1825-1865 shows us, American publishers had no qualms about lifting material, both prose and illustrations, from the gift annuals of other publishers or from their own earlier releases. Copyright was a different matter in those days, and publishers played rather free and easy with their content. That being said, Thompson does note many prominent writers and illustrators who were credited contributors to gift annuals: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsforth Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example. Well-known engravers such as John B. Neagle, James Smillie, and John Cheney worked from famous paintings by artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer to provide the illustrations.

Sonsof Temperance
Title page from The Sons of Temperance Offering for 1850. New York: Published by Nafis & Cornish, 1849.

In addition to the usual religious annuals, American publishers branched out into covering the anti-slavery movement (The Liberty Bell, Freedom’s Gift), temperance (The Fountain, The Sons of Temperance Offering), and even particular cities (The Amethyst, which had pieces by Baltimore writers). The popularity of American gift annuals declined slightly later than their English counterparts. Thompson’s comprehensive catalog ends in 1865; gift annuals were certainly published past this year but they never regained their earlier popularity.

Cover of The Liberty Bell,  Boston : Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1845.
Cover of The Liberty Bell, Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1845.

Both Faxon and Thompson note the ways that gift annuals were treasured in the home. Thompson writes: “For nearly a generation the resplendent gift book was among the most treasured of personal belongings. Unlike other volumes, it was not, once read, forgotten. Thruout [sic] the year it lay upon the parlor table, an ornament awaiting re-examination in an idle hour.” Faxon ends his consideration of the annuals by quoting from the fond reminiscences of a gift annual owner in an 1893 Atlantic Monthly: “They were gifts and often treasured up as the faded rose…because they were haunted with the secret and subtle fragrance of bygone memories.”

The cataloging of the N-YHS library’s collection of gift annuals was part of a grant-funded initiative. 



  1. says

    Thank you for such a beautifully-written entry. I’ve been doing work on British-published literary annuals for years based on my dissertation work at the Graduate Center, CUNY. During that time, because there weren’t any cohesive collections of British literary annuals, I amassed my own collection of all the most popular British annuals (and successfully collected every year they were published). In 2015, I completed my literary history of annuals with all of these that you mention. On my next trip to NYC, I’d love to take a look at the collection (and will contact the appropriate entity).

    Thank you again for a great post.

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