The hosts talk with a listener about when and why American children began to buy Christmas presents for their parents.
NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.
ED: We’re going to take a call now from one of our listeners. hosts, we have Michele with us from New Orleans. Michelle, welcome to BackStory.
MICHELLE: Hi. How are you all?
ED: Well, we’re great.
MICHELLE: So I was curious about Christmas shopping in particular, and about kind of when the moment would have happened where people might expect that children will buy gifts for their parents, rather than say make or find gifts for their parents. One of my earliest school memories is of essentially a fundraising event where the school set up something like the Santa’s workshop or something like that, where there were a bunch of little trinkets that kids could buy for their families. And when I thought about it, you know, I remembered buying my mother this hideous ceramic cat, very ugly cat.
ED: Which she kept for years, right?
MICHELLE: Oh, for years. Oh, we moved a ton, and she just kept it all the time. And also at the time, she was pregnant with my little sister. And I even bought my unborn little sister a toothbrush at this–
ED: Oh, you’re so thoughtful, Michelle.
MICHELLE: Oh, yeah.
MICHELLE: But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, like, why would anyone expect a six-year-old to buy someone Christmas gifts? And so I was just kind of curious where that could have come from?
ED: Well, I think what we can agree is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. You just don’t see examples in the 19th century even of people thinking this way, you know. I mean, it’s hard for me not to think of this as a 20th century thing, Brian.
BRIAN: Yeah. I think it is a 20th century thing. And I think if we’re talking specifically about Christmas, I would imagine drives to fund schools inadvertently led to a lot of gift giving. I mean, kids were encouraged to go out and sell things. And a lot of those things where things like Christmas wrap or fruit for Christmas, which ends up never being given to me, Michelle, but presumably to some parents.
The standard story about when kids began to enter the market is after World War II, we have the baby boom. And we have huge mass marketers noticing that kids are getting allowances, and wanting to tap into those allowances. But I’m going to turn to Peter, because he may have some thoughts, even though it’s the 20th century.
PETER: Yeah. No,I think you’re describing something very important, Brian. But it begins perhaps with the advertising industry itself, because I think advertisers– and this is early 20th century big time, though it does go back into the 19th century. Advertisers understand that they’re trying to create consumer patterns over lifetimes. And one of the reasons why you pitch towards kids is you want brand loyalty to begin then.
MICHELLE: That’s true. I think about like the film reels, like old film reels that you would see in schools that would be sponsored by industries and companies and all that.
PETER: Yeah. So I think– Brian, I think you’re right. You don’t have it on a mass scale until you have the modern allowance. That really doesn’t take hold until the inter-war period in the middle classes. That is, the kids would get a regular amount of money. And one of the reasons they did get–
ED: What wars are you talking about? Which wars?
PETER: Between World War I and II. And the reason they get allowances is to restrain consumption, because if you don’t have a regular allowance, then you’re always hitting on the old folks. And this is a form of family discipline. In other words, the default is that kids exercise so much power in American families that they can spend too much and actually endanger family finances.
BRIAN: And Peter, of course, has offered an explanation with such a nice soft glow to it as we approach the holiday season. But there’s another explanation. And that’s the inexorable expansion of markets as we make more and more stuff. And, you know, in the United States that started with exporting to foreign countries. At the beginning of the 20th century we all know how middle class women were targeted as shoppers with the rise of the department store.
And let’s face it, kids presented a new untapped market to lots of people. Someone was making those hideous ceramics cats, and said, who the heck is going to buy this? I know. An eight-year-old.
PETER: A six-year-old girl.
BRIAN: Exactly. Who’s being forced to buy something by her school teacher.
ED: God, you guys are such grinches.
BRIAN: Yeah, mainly you, Peter.
ED: Here’s the way that I would think of this, Michelle.
ED: Let’s think of it this way. What is this all about? Honey, we give you everything, all the time. It’s so touching that you would save up your little resources to give back to us. It’s a form of affective familial domestic citizenship.
PETER: Yeah. And you couldn’t put a price on it, could you, Ed? It’s priceless, like that hideous–
ED: Yeah. Exactly. The uglier it is, the more we’re supposed to love it, right?
PETER: Because we’re ugly and our parents love us.
ED: Well, exactly.
MICHELLE: Well, you know, it’s true, like those are the gifts that the family tells stories about, right? Like that’s what we– yeah.
ED: I think, you know, Michelle, your question can touch this kind of response I think to anybody who grew up in 20th century America. I mean, consuming is such as a part of defining who we are. Or when you come to realize that that was one ugly ceramic cat you gave to your mother, it’s a form of education in and of itself, right? And she loves you anyway.
ED: And we love you for giving us a call.
PETER: Yeah, wonderful call.
BRIAN: Thank you, Michelle.
PETER: Thanks a lot.
MICHELLE: Thank you. You have a good one.
PETER: Bye bye.
ED: Bye bye.
[MUSIC PLAYING – THE MIRACLES, “SHOP AROUND”]