The Invention of Christmas Presents for Kids

21st November 1911: Toys dogs at a Christmas Bazaar. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

As we draw closer to December 25, a disproportionate degree of American adults’ mental energy will be rerouted into determining and acquiring this year’s must-have toys for children. But the ceremonial bestowal of the Shopkins is a relatively recent development—how did it happen?

The nineteenth century, obviously.

The blog JSTOR Daily highlights items from the academic database’s collections, and today’s selection is a paper from the journal Icon by historian Joseph Wachelder. He argues that our modern notion of a “toy” didn’t coalesce until the turn of the nineteenth century, helped along by the 1798 handbook Practical Education by Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, which encouraged little knick-knacks for kids that could help them “exercise their senses of the imagination, their imitative and inventive power.”

circa 1873: A Christmas greetings card showing a child playing with her toys. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wachelder therefore combed through ads from the time to track the rise of the Christmas present:

Looking at issues of the London daily newspaper The Morning Chronicle published between 1800 and 1827, Wachelder found a steady increase in advertisements for children’s presents. In 1800 and 1801, he found no ads mentioning gifts or presents. By 1816, there were 30, mostly for children’s gifts and almost all in December or January issues of the paper. Half the ads specifically mentioned Christmas.

Among the playthings advertised were “a New Geographical game,” “Chinese Puzzle No. IV,” chemistry sets, and kaleidoscopes. Toy theaters, invented in 1812, also became a popular gift, as did toys that created optical illusions, like the thaumatope and the kaleidophone.

December 1856: Uncle William giving out his presents to the family. Original Publication: Illustrated London News - pub. 1856 Uncle William’s Christmas Presents - engraving - John Gilbert (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Something similar was happening over on this side of the pond, The Atlantic recounted in a 2015 history. Drawing on Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, the piece says that our modern understanding of the holiday was shaped by nineteenth-century conflicts between New York City’s elites and working classes, and fears about what would happen when the rowdiness of farmers’ Christmas traditions were transported into dense, harder to control urban areas. Where once working-class people had partied in the street, according to The Atlantic, Christmas was rebooted into a cozy domestic affair. At the same time, the emerging middle class was rethinking parenting in ways that, among other things, resulted in piles of presents.

Like their wealthier contemporaries, middle-class families worried about what rapid population growth and expanding market capitalism would do to their children....

In response to the increasing uncertainty surrounding this stage of life, urban families that aspired to prepare their children for life in the middle and upper ranks of American society widely adopted new strategies for child-rearing. As work and home became increasingly separated for these families, parents kept children within the home (or at church or in school) as long as possible in order to avoid what many of them perceived as the corrupting influences of commerce on kids’ inchoate moral character. Elites’ efforts to domesticate Christmas aligned neatly with these parents’ interests, for they encouraged young Americans to associate the joys of the holiday with the morally and physically protective space of home.


End result: Hatchimals.

December 1929: A toddler sitting in bed with a collection of christmas gifts. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images).

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