Scrambling for a last minute Christmas gift?
Why not try a book recommendation from 1928?
What do you think was the most popular Christmas gift in 1928? If you said “a book,” you’d be right! 🙂
Books were extremely popular as Christmas gifts throughout the Roaring Twenties, of course, much like they are today—and it’s easy to see why.
“Books are the ideal Christmas gift,” stated a Chicago Tribune article in 1928.1 “Those who enjoy reading are more thrilled with a book than any other gift one could choose, and those who don’t like to read are flattered anyway.”2 That’s because giving a book as a gift can imply all kinds of things about its reader—and with so many different kinds of books available, a giver was almost guaranteed to find something appropriate for their recipient.
As a result, books were considered as a “safe” gift for young men and women of the 1920s to give to one another. Such gifts were particularly important for young people who were “courting,” as giving or receiving an expensive or extravagant gift of any kind could potentially embarrass, drive away, or signal the wrong intention to the other party. Books, however, were considered exempt from this social consideration. For example, one Tribune article stated that young women should be “most careful” when giving anything to man they weren’t “betrothed to” for Christmas—unless it was a book: “Books, of course, she may send—that goes without saying—and it’s just one more nice thing about books.”3
Books were considered equally “safe” for anyone else on your Christmas list, too, as they could be personal or not and covered so many topics you were sure to find something eventually. As a result, books were also popular gift choices for everybody else in your life, too—just like they are today.
In light of that, then, imagine my joy and surprise when I ran across a Christmas book guide from 1928 while digging through the Chicago Tribune archives! 🙂 Not only did it suggest over 100 “popular” book titles as possible Christmas gifts, but each book list was created with a different kind of recipient in mind, from fathers who consider themselves “collegiate” to old women who have, ahem, “delusions of Sixteen” (instead of admitting their age).4 Most of the descriptors of each recipient were quite funny and sarcastic, and the books they suggested for each of them were very interesting.
Here are the possible book recipients given in the article:
“Father,” who is either “a nice solid soul” or “inclined to be collegiate.”
“Mother,” who either “wears gray and glasses and likes to whip up pudding for Sunday night supper” or “wears French models and a bob.”
“Sister,” who is either “a romantic” or “thinks the peaches in the gardens of life are lemons.”
“Brother,” who is either “collegiate” or “isn’t.”
“Her,” who is “proud of her mind” or “has spent her life trying to prove she hasn’t one.”
“Him,” who “still thinks the West is wild” or has brains “in his head and not in his feet.”
“An Old lady” who either “admits she is one” or “has a delusion of Sixteen.”
“An Old Gentleman” who “plays pinchole, doesn’t dance, and smokes cigars” or “plays bridge” and “does the Varsity drag” (sorry, I couldn’t resist… 😉 ).
“Tessie, aged 13, who knows all.”
“Angie, aged 9, who still believes there is a Peter Pan.”
“Cuthbert, aged 12, who has a quiet little smoke occasionally.”
“George Alfred, aged 6, who lies on his stomach when he reads.”
“The baby, aged 3, who will probably be President some day.”5
While there were far too many books in the 1928 article for me to list all of them, there were some notable trends throughout the selection:
Most of the suggested books were published in 1928. The Tribune article sourced “Chicago bookshops” for recommendations, so it’s not surprising they’d want to sell new products).6
Volumes of poetry were popular gifts for everyone, no matter the age or gender. Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Aldis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mother Goose (hah!), and A. A. Milne were all recommended as poets. This suggests a society with a greater appreciation for, familiarity with, and daily exposure to poetry as a valuable form of literature…something we lack today, sadly.
“Classic” literature from the Victorian Age was a big hit. While there were some books on the list that would be considered classics today (Bambi and Orlando were both recommended, as were some Wodehouse books and Agatha Christie), most of the classic literature came from the late 1800s or early 1900s. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the Tom Swift series, and books by A. A. Milne were all listed.
The same book was recommended for every adult on the list: Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley. Sort of an intellectual Who’s Who of the 1920s, Huxley’s longest novel covers a philosophical conversation between a large cast of characters, many of whom were based on prominent real-life figures of the time. Sounds like a book that would prompt lots of discussions around the Christmas dinner table at the time!
Women’s book choices reflected women’s changing position in society. Depending on what “type” of women the bookshop owners were suggesting for, their book choices veered wildly from intelligent to catty to downright childish. There was everything from Bambi (which was suggested for the “gray” mother AND children), to The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, to a matter-of-fact book about having extramarital affairs. Not exactly the best grouping of stereotypes, is it?
Below you’ll find a selection of books from some of the “recipients” in the Tribune article. Each book has a small summary, links to where you can find a vintage or reprint copy, and a modern-day read-alike. Take a look. Perhaps you’ll find the perfect last minute Christmas gift here after all! 🙂
BOOKS FOR “FATHER,”
Who is either “a nice solid soul” or “inclined to be collegiate”:
Father’s tastes seem to run to biographies of famous people (Lincoln and Grant being particularly popular), drinking guides (for reliving college days), and staid religious titles, with the odd adventure book thrown in. Here are few picks for him:
While the books on Abraham Lincoln are considered classics in their field, the book about General Grant contains some racist leanings, but seems to offer a pretty fair general picture of Grant as a person, in spite of being written by a Southerner.
Modern Read-alike: Grant by Ron Chernow has made the New York Times Book Review Top Ten List for 2017, and is purported to be an excellent study of a complicated presidential figure. There’s also a new biography on the underrated President McKinley as well.
Vintage Suggestion (for “collegiate” dad): How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion by “Professor” Jerry Thomas
I was both surprised and amused to find this book listed here, under “collegiate” father’s book list, especially considering how Prohibition was still going strong in 1928, when this list was compiled. At the beginning of Prohibition, most booksellers were forced to remove books like these from their shelves, and could be fined for selling them. Interesting, then, that the Tribune would actually recommend this…
Modern Read-alike: Why not try a reprint of the original? As most cocktail aficionados know, it’s got some great drinks and has tons of historical value, so why mess with what already works? And if you don’t want to shell out any cash, there are tons of free online versions too.
Vintage Suggestion (for “solid” dad): The Hounds of God by Rafael Sabatini
Rafael Sabatini, the same Italian-English adventure novelist who penned Scaramouche, The Sea-Hawk, and Captain Blood, offers a stirring adventure novel about a shipwrecked Spaniard who falls in love with an English lady while pursued by the Spanish Inquisition.
Modern Read-alike: While Dumas isn’t exactly “modern,” he came up consistently on Novelist Plus as a similar author to Sabatini, probably because both feature swashbuckling heroes on daring adventures. May I recommend one of my favorite Dumas books, The Count of Monte Cristo? 🙂
BOOKS FOR “MOTHER,”
who either “wears gray and glasses and likes to whip up pudding for Sunday night supper” or “wears French models and a bob”:
Traditional “gray and glasses” mother favors historical fiction, the lives of the rich and famous, and Methodist religious texts. Modern mother, however, apparently likes to cheat on her husband, plans to take over Hell in the afterlife, and enjoys Gothic mysteries. What a pair! O.o
Vintage Suggestion (for “gray” mother): Mary, Wife of Lincoln by Katherine Helm
Written by the niece of Mary Todd Lincoln, this book purports to be an insider’s view of Lincoln’s famous wife. According to Goodreads reviewers, it’s quite biased (she was family, after all), but worth it if you’ve already read a lot of other books about Mary and want a different take on things. If you’re interested, there are used copies available for sale on Amazon, or you can read it all for free here online.
Modern Read-alike: Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean Harvey Baker
Considered a “definitive” work, this book offers a readable, sympathetic, and more balanced portrait of Mrs. Lincoln’s life and times.
If you’re more interested in fiction, try Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. Based on a true story, it chronicles the friendship between dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave, and Mrs. Lincoln throughout the most tumultuous period of her life.
Vintage suggestion (for “modern” mother): The Jealous Gods by Gertude Atherton
Getrude Atherton was a popular Californian writer with strong Feminist views. Her book The Jealous Gods appears to be a piece of historical fiction, but I couldn’t find out much about it beyond the first sentence, which begins thusly:
“The last thing that Alcibiades had wanted was to marry, but one day on a wager he slapped the face of the father of his friend Callias, and the wealthy and genial Hipponicus was so charmed with the grace of his apology that he offered him his daughter and ten talents as a marriage portion.”
…And based on the ad to the left here, it looks like it also involves an Egyptian princess! Sounds interesting. Unfortunately, it also seems to be out of print. But then, there’s always Worldcat…
Modern Read-alike: NovelistPlus suggests Edna O’Brien as an alternative to Atherton, since her work also focuses on women’s struggles. Why not try her most recent book, The Little Red Chairs? Set in Ireland, it features a mysterious healer who comes to a small village and woos a local woman. When she finds out that he’s a wanted war criminal, however, her world is shattered, and she must find a way to pick up the pieces.
BOOKS FOR “BROTHER,”
who is either “collegiate” or “isn’t”:
Brother seems to be an adventurous soul, with broad interests in war, early science fiction, booze (The Bon-Vivant’s Companion is also recommended for “collegiate” brother), mysteries, and the occasional book of essays—one of which I talk about below.
Vintage Suggestion (for “collegiate” bother): Wither Mankind, edited by Charles A. Beard
This collection of essays explores what it means to live in a “modern” world, with an emphasis on man’s relationships to machines. At least one Amazon reviewer argued that these 1928 essays still have relevance today. While I haven’t read them myself, they do sound interesting—and you can read it all for free here.
Modern Read-alike: These days, everyone seems to be discussing the future of artificial intelligence, and there are a number of new books out this year that try to imagine what that future will look like—and if humans will still be a part of it. Check out these three books:
Thinking Machines by Luke Dormehl covers the history of A.I., from its beginnings in the Cold War to the advances being made today—and predicts where it might be going next.
Heart of the Machine by Futurist Richard Yonck discusses how incorporating emotions to A.I. could be the next big step in human-robot interactions.
Vintage Suggestion (for “collegiate” brother): Raiders of the Deep by Lowell Thomas
Listed as a bestseller in 1928, this book by renowned reporter Lowell Thomas offered a sympathetic, behind-the-scenes look at the German soldiers who risked their lives in U-Boat crews. That’s because, rather than offer some kind of history or context, he simply asked German soldiers to tell their stories—and frankly, after what I’ve read about life in U-Boats, I have no doubt that it’s just as gripping as the goodreads reviewers say.
Modern Read-alike: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Luistania by Erik Larson
A terrific read (and one of the few books on this list I’ve actually read), Larson covers both the side of the victims and the Germans with aplomb, and his descriptions of stressful, cramped life in a U-Boat are excruciating to read. Can’t recommend this book enough! 🙂
Vintage Suggestion (for the “isn’t” brother): The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
When an American heiress is strangled on the French luxury train Le Train Bleu, detective Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate. While many people on Amazon don’t consider this her best work—and a precursor to her classic Murder on the Orient Express at best—it’s still an Agatha Christie mystery, and as such, it truly can’t be all that bad. Christie was a master for a reason, after all! 😉
Modern Read-alike: Just go read anything by Agatha Christie. Seriously. She’s wonderful! 😀
BOOKS FOR “SISTER,”
who is either “a romantic” or “thinks the peaches in the gardens of life are lemons”:
These sisters are another interesting pair. “Romantic” sister seems to be young and naive, as many of her book selections are rather childish and have some crossover with “gray” traditional mother, too—not exactly the nicest insinuations there. The bitter sister who thinks only of “lemons,” however, has more racy titles, such as the autobiography of Isadora Duncan.
Strangely, though, both of them got the same recommendation: a copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry collection, The Buck in the Snow.
The title poem goes like this:
White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.
Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.
How strange a thing is death, bringing to his knees, bringing to his antlers
The buck in the snow.
How strange a thing, a mile away by now, it may be,
Under the heavy hemlocks, that as the moments pass,
Shift their loads a little, letting fall a feather of snow –
Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.
Cheery, isn’t it? :p Not sure why they both got that one. Some of the kids even got it, too. Here’s a tiny ad for it, too:
I guess the fact that it was her first book in five years was a big deal, but I digress.
Vintage Suggestion (for “romantic” sister): Silver Slippers by Temple Bailey
Largely forgotten today, Temple Bailey was a popular and prolific author in her time who produced quite a number of short stories, novels, and articles for famous magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, and Good Housekeeping, to name a few. As for novels, she mostly wrote sweeping romances, and according to this goodreads review, it sounds like Silver Slippers is definitely in that vein: Joan Dudley, orphaned as a young adult, is forced to live with her wealthy aunt and must decide if she will marry a middle-aged man who seems to only want her aunt’s money. Whatever will Joan do? Unfortunately, aside from buying antique copies, it doesn’t seem too easy to find a copy of this book, except on Worldcat of course.
Modern Read-alike: I’m not much of a romance reader at all, but Georgette Heyer is constantly being recommended to me as a good historical fiction writer who focuses on romance. She’s known for excellent historical research as well as gripping romantic plots. Why not start with her first Regency romance, Regency Buck? Not only does it feature romance, but a mystery as well! (Heyer was also a prolific mystery writer, which was the other reason she was recommended to me).
Vintage Suggestion: Fall Flight by Eleanor Gizycka
A thinly-veiled fictionalized account of the author’s broken marriage, Fall Flight chronicles the life and loves of a “shy, lonely, passionate” girl who marries a Russian prince, then flees his estate—and her failing marriage—with the help of the prince’s sexy English stable manager. The author’s real name, however, was “Cissy” Patterson. Not only was her grandfather the owner of the Chicago Tribune and former mayor of Chicago, but her brother Joseph founded the New York Daily News, and she herself went on to start the Washington Times-Herald. Not a bad read according to the few reviews I could find, but frankly, Cissy’s real life sounds MUCH more interesting than this.
Modern Read-alike: Okay, so this isn’t really a read-alike per se, but Cissy’s life really WAS interesting, if only in that it intersected in some way with pretty much all of the major historical events of her lifetime. Famous, rich, demanding, and always on the cutting edge of the news, Cissy’s life was full of famous people and events of the 1920s and 1930s, which is good for history-loving folks because outside of that she was apparently a really awful human being—and Amanda Smith’s Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson gives you both in spades!
BOOKS FOR THE CHILDREN, who consist of Tessie (age 13), Angie (age 9),
Cuthbert (age 12), George Alfred (age 6), and Baby (age 3):
With the kiddies, it’s a much broader mix, and titles seem more dependent on the recipient’s age, gender, and attitude. Thirteen-year-old Tessie features a mix of serious titles and sweeping romances (Silver Slippers appears on her list too). Nine-year-old Angie gets a host of children’s classics (The Wind in the Willows, Dr. Dolittle in the Moon, Arabian Nights, etc). Cuthbert gets a mix of war books, survival books (Boy Scouts and so on), adventure novels and some classics too (like Tom Sawyer). Six-year-old George gets Winne the Pooh, Oz, and Uncle Remus stories. Three-year-old baby gets multiple Mother Goose rhymes, as well as Dorothy Aldis poetry. All in all, an interesting mix!
Vintage Suggestion (for Tessie): Harriet’s Choice by Jane Abbott
A girl goes to New York to live with her aunt and “Harriet found a deep mystery at Aunt Marcia’s city home – and the road to her heart’s desire!” was pretty much all I could find to describe the plot this book, though based on the cover I’d peg it for a romance, perhaps in the same vein as Silver Slippers. Apparently, when she’s not reading serious stuff like The Crock of Gold, Tessie likes to read romances (yeah, right! :p).
Modern Read-alike: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Based on the other books recommended for Tessie, she came off as an intelligent tomboy, so I’d vote for giving her this excellent book instead. It chronicles the growing friendship between a young artistic boy and a rich, tomboyish girl who create an imaginary world together called Terabithia. The ending is quite the tearjerker, but it’s a good one!
Vintage Suggestion (for Angie): Kimo by Alice Cooper Bailey
It was hard for me to find much about this book, save for the following summary from Goodreads, which was the most complete one I could find anywhere: “Kimo, a boy from Honolulu, goes to stay with his aunt in an isolated village on another island. Here, the people have been untouched by modern civilization and still live following the old ways. But, to his dismay, he isn’t accepted by the grandfather of the little village. Mysterious letters, a talking bird, unknown histories — by the end of this tale, Kimo and young Lani learn a lot about their families and their country.” Also, according to a different Goodreads user, the boy’s grandmother is the “doomed” Queen of Hawaii. Maybe he meant this lady?
Modern Read-alike: While it’s hard to confidently suggest anything not knowing fully what this book is about, but if you want to discuss the exploitation of islanders with kids, maybe try The Bomb by Theodore Taylor. While the book isn’t meant for very young children (so Angie, who is 9, is off the list), teens and older preteens will be touched by the poignant, heart-wrenching ending that encourages them to think about the exploitation of indigenous peoples.
Vintage Suggestion (for Cuthbert): Historic Airships by Rupert Holland
Aside from being a “general history from hot air balloons through Lindenberg” plus other forms of air travel, I couldn’t find much on this book….except for a picture of the inside title page, which included gorgeous color plate!
Check this out:
Looks great, doesn’t it??? 😀 I bet the pen drawings inside are great too, based on that insert there. WWI planes are the best, after all! 😀
Modern Read-alike: Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age by Tom D. Crouch
Written by a former curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., this book attempts to cover the entire history of commercial aviation in one volume—and does so admirably. He covers everything from early gliders to the Wright brothers to the rise of commercial aviation in the 1920s to stealth bombers and beyond. Engaging, well-written, thoroughly researched, and still in print!
Vintage Suggestion (for George Alfred): The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne
The second collection of Pooh stories by famous writer A. A. Milne, this book was recommended along with Now We Are Six, a book of poetry for children. This particular collection is notable for introducing this guy.
Modern Read-alike: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, some things are classics for a reason! So why not give a set of his books to your favorite young person?
And if you’re looking for an adult, you could always try one of Milne’s mystery novels. Did you know Milne actually wanted to be a mystery writer, but his adult work was never taken seriously? Apparently it infuriated him to no end. If you want to give his adult work a try, start with The Red House Mystery, one of those classic locked-room scenarios.
Vintage Suggestion (for the Baby): Here, There and Everywhere by Dorothy Aldis
Dorothy Aldis was a famous children’s poet during the early 1920s. She was also a Chicagoan, being raised in the city and settling in nearby Lake Forest, IL. Her rhymes may be simple, but her imagery is quite nice, and many of her poems are still included in modern children’s poetry collections.
Modern Read-alike: Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss
An abridged version meant for toddlers, this popular Dr. Seuss book is full of rhymes and tongue-twisters that are great for little kids and their parents to try together.
So what do you think of these book lists, dear readers? See any books you like? Have you read any of the vintage books on this list? If so, would you recommend them, or not so much? Please share in the Comments below! 🙂
Happy holiday reading, everyone!
May you have a lovely holiday season and a happy New Year! 😀 ❤