In 1832, Miss Mary Ann S. Baird received from her brother a small gilt-edged volume bound in green leather entitled The Religious Souvenir (Philadelphia: Key, Mielke & Biddle, 1832; AY11.R4). His inscription to her appears at the front of the Library's copy. The book contains moral and religious stories and poems with nine engravings or “embellishments,” as they were often called. Miss Mary Ann was only one of thousands of American women to receive such gifts in the middle half of the nineteenth century. Each year between about 1825 and 1865, publishers issued beautifully bound, well-illustrated literary annuals to be used as gifts for friends and relatives; more than sixty titles a year appeared at midcentury.
Gift books appeared at a time when the growing middle class had more money to spend conspicuously (a single volume could cost as much as $5.00 at a time when a textile mill worker earned about $3.50 a week) and more leisure to devote to literary pursuits. They featured the work of many American writers and illustrators and contributed to national pride by demonstrating the high level of culture in the United States.
Women regularly contributed stories and poems to the annuals and also served as editors. Four of the many writers represented are:
Maria Weston Chapman and her sisters issued Liberty Bell (Boston, 1839-58; microfilm 01104, reels 491-92; and RBSC), an antislavery gift book that is unusual among such works in its realism and true tales.
Researchers can explore images of women and girls in both the engravings and the stories, and examine literary pieces by women authors both well-known and unfamiliar. The Library holds more than one thousand volumes of gift books and annuals in the general, rare book, and microform collections, and has recently acquired American Literary Annuals and Gift Books, 1825-1865, an extensive microform set based on Ralph Thompson's bibliography and indexed by E. Bruce Kirkham.
Below are some Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) that will lead to more resources through browse searches in the Library of Congress Online Catalog:
The following Library of Congress Classification Numbers will lead to more items in the Library's online catalog, but can also be used in other library catalogs.
The highly fanciful, romantic nature of the stories, delicate flower illustrations, and sentimental poetry in some gift books suggest that women and girls were the primary audience. Great care was taken in both the text and illustrations to adhere to the purest of sentiments. Nothing within the leather-bound covers would offend the most delicate sensibilities. Intended as a “family keepsake,” “gift book for all seasons,” or “bridal gift,” these ornamental works adorned drawing-room tables and provided entertainment for the whole year. Among the titles in the General Collections are Amaranth (1831-54), Rose of Sharon (1840-57), Snowflake (1846; 1849-52; 1854-55), and Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual (1838-40, 1847-49).
The following print resources link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. General resources are listed first, followed by more specific volumes listed by topic.