Of George Washington and Holiday Shopping

Black Friday is behind us, and shoppers have hit the malls and the toy stores and have checked the gifts that they wanted to purchase from their shopping lists.  Despite bleak forecast from financial analysts, retailers had a better Black Friday than last year.  The next few shopping days will tell if this will be a better holiday shopping season, as those who didn’t find all of their intended items – or like me, have yet to shop – hit the stores.

The people of colonial America didn’t have the stress and bluster of holiday gift shopping that we have today.  People were not so pre-occupied with gift giving; in fact, gifts were given only to children, servants and other dependents.  In 1759, before he lead the fight for independence and became our first president, George Washington made up a list of presents to give to his stepchildren, Jackie and Patsy.  It included:

A bird on Bellows
A Cuckoo
A turnabout Parrot
A Grocers Shop
An Aviary
A Prussian Dragoon
A Man Smoakg [Smoking?]
A Tunbridge Tea Sett
3 Neat Tunbridge Toys
A Neat Book fash Tea Chest
A box best Household Stuff
A straw Patch box w. a Glass
A neat dress’d Wax Baby

I couldn’t find much information about these toys, but Washington probably either traveled to Boston to purchase them, or ordered them from Boston shops or toy makers in England.  Washington was a man of means, and could afford toys such as these, whereas toys owned by the average colonial kid were homemade:  The baby doll was made from cornhusks instead of wax, and a barrel hoop was as good as any turnabout Parrot.

We’ve come a long way in how we celebrate Christmas and how we give.  Gifts are exchanged across all stations of life; buying gifts are far more commonplace than handcrafting; even low income folk shop for and spend money on toys.  The change in custom is, in some ways, a reflection of the growth and economic prosperity of this country.  We have more money, relatively speaking, than some and more things to spend it on.  At this time of the year, we think of things we can buy to honor friends and loved ones.  Just as we did a short time ago, the holiday season might be a good thing to reflect and give thanks for our relative wealth.


George Washington’s shopping list was found in The Book of Christmas, The Reader’s Digest Association, New York, © 1973.

Learn about Washington and other US Presidents from POTUS (Presidents of the United States), part of the Internet Public Library.

This essay describes Christmas in Colonial America.

Published in: on November 27, 2007 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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