The year was 1912, and the rampant commercialism of Christmas in America had begun to irritate the working women of New York City.
Americans had been exchanging holiday gifts for centuries, after the ritual became legal in 1680 following a ban by the Pilgrims, who considered it a crass anathema. By the 19th century Christmas gifts were a firmly entrenched tradition. But by 1911, when a few dozen women in New York City formed what would later be called The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, it had reached an early fever pitch.
The yearly emphasis on materialism annoyed the so-called Spugs, but there was also a practical complaint: the era’s custom of employees giving gifts to bosses and higher-ups in exchange for work favors. Frequently, these gifts didn’t run cheap, costing in some cases up to two weeks’ worth of wages, a tradition propelled in part by peer pressure that had grown only bigger with each passing year.
And so, with the help of two of New York richest women, the Spugs decided to strike back.
“Are you a giver of Christmas gifts?” The New York Times reported on November 12, 1912. “If you are, do you give them in the true spirit of generosity or in the hope that you may get presents or favors in return? If that is the way you have been offering holiday remembrances, and if you wish to rebel against this hypocrisy, then you are eligible for membership in the Spug Club.”
The society was founded by Eleanor Robson Belmont, an actress whose husband’s family is the namesake of the Belmont Stakes, and Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, one of the richest men who ever lived. The group began in 1911, with a few dozen female members, but exploded over the next year, growing to over 6,000, the New York Times reported then.
This growth was in part an expression of collective frustration, but it was effectively powered by the charisma of Belmont, who, in the 1900s, was one of the most famous stage actresses in America. She retired in 1910 after her marriage to August Belmont II, going on to become one of the “genuine grande dames” of Manhattan society, the Times said in her obituary. And while she would later become known as an early savior of the Metropolitan Opera, one of her first big philanthropic projects was helping out the Spugs.
At one rally in 1912, Belmont addressed a dissenter, a “young woman of about 25 years,” who complained that such a club wasn’t necessary.
“But, my girl friends,” she told the crowd. “Is it not true that these evils do exist and that you must give many useless Christmas gifts simply because it is the custom?
“Yes, it’s true,” Belmont continued. “Start the Spug Club.”
What happened at the Spug meetings? Ice cream was served, for one thing, while women also took in what was then a novel form of entertainment: moving pictures. The rallies were also, at their root, about female solidarity, even if class divisions lingered, giving the occasions an air of maternalistic charity.
“Don’t call them ‘working girls,’” the philanthropist Gertrude Robinson Smith said at a meeting of over 1,000 Spugs in December 1912. “They are self-respecting, self-supporting women.” The Times went on to describe the meeting this way:
“At first it was difficult to single out the working girls. They were all as well dressed as their patronesses. In fact, all sister Spugs, patrons, and patroned looked alike to the reportorial eye. For the benefit of those who still think that the trem [sic] Spugs is the name for some strange new bug, it must be explained that the letters stand for the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.”
The meetings continued, and by the following year, the Spug boom was in full force.
“BIG SPUG DANCE ON THE PIER,” the Times reported in June 1913. “Miss Morgan Witnesses 8,000 Vacation Girls In an Evening’s Pleasure.”
The organization initially was just for women, though men were later allowed in, mostly because of Theodore Roosevelt, who, in December 1912, became the first “man Spug,” prompting hundreds of others to join to movement to tamp down on Christmas gifts.
“I believe the group can accomplish what the individual cannot—namely, the gradual substitution of the right spirit of Christmas giving, in place of the custom of ‘collective’ and ‘exchange’ presents which exists to-day,” read the Society membership card Roosevelt signed. “I agree to pay 10c. a year dues and wear during all campaigns the Spug button.”
Yet just two years later, the Spugs had scattered. War had erupted in Europe, and the attentions of Spug founders Belmont and Morgan—as well as the rest of the world—had shifted elsewhere. The Spug fad was over, though their point had been made, a message that wouldn’t seem out of date today.