In the midst of the holiday season, many Americans pack the malls after work and browse online shopping sites for the perfect gifts for their loved ones. Gifts are an exciting part of the holidays, especially for young children, who dream up long lists of desired items and await their arrival with great anticipation. Popular gifts for children this year may include old favorites like building blocks and dolls, as well as new favorites like electronics. This transfer-printed plate from Saratoga National Historical Park may have been a holiday gift for a little boy or girl in mid 19th-century America.
The tradition of gift-giving around the holidays may have evolved from ancient festivals that celebrated the winter solstice. Gifts were often exchanged during the pagan festival of Kalends, which marked the new year. Gifts continued to be exchanged at the new year until the Victorian era, when the celebration of Christmas became more prolific. Many of our modern Christmas traditions were born – or at least elaborated – during the Victorian era. Victorians sent Christmas cards, ate Christmas candy, and decked their homes with lavish decorations. Initially, small gifts were hung from the Christmas tree. As time passed and gifts became larger and more numerous, they were placed under the tree.
Earlier in the 19th century, gifts were modest: small handmade trinkets, candy, fruit, or nuts. As mass production in factories progressed, more families could afford toys, games, and dolls. Children also often received useful items, which probably included children’s dishes like this one from Saratoga National Historical Park. Children’s dishes were given as reward pieces for well behaved boys and girls and also as practice pieces intended to teach children about proper table settings and manners. They were decorated with moral sayings, children’s names, letters of the alphabet, and scenes from nursery rhymes.
The child’s plate from Saratoga National Historical Park has a cat motif in the center and an alphabet border. An endearing piece in itself, the possibility that this plate was given to an excited child as a holiday gift makes it even more special.
NMSC Archeology Lab Blog article: Old Mother Slipper Slopper: Pratt Ware at African Burial Ground National Monument. https://nmscarcheologylab.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/old-mother-slipper-slopper-pratt-ware-at-african-burial-ground-national-monument/
Schama, Simon. Whose Tree Is It Anyway? New York Times, December 24, 1991. Accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/24/opinion/whose-tree-is-it-anyway.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm