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Think the holidays are too commercial? So did the Arts and Crafts movement—a century ago.

The Edna S. Purcell House (now known as the Purcell-Cutts House) is decorated for a 1915 Christmas with the Purcell Family. Winterlights tours are led every weekend through January 5, 2014.

The Edna S. Purcell House (now known as the Purcell-Cutts House) is decorated for a 1915 Christmas with the Purcell family. Winterlights tours are led every weekend through December 31.

Is all the pressure to buy, buy, buy during the winter holidays—early in the morning, late at night, 24/7 on the internet—turning you into the Grinch? Would you rather craft your own gifts than touch the latest plastic gewgaws with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole? Would you rather just send a card?

You would’ve made a fine Spug—a member of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, formed to combat the rising tide of compulsory gift-giving, way back in 1912. The expectation then, even more than now, was to heap gifts onto every friend, coworker, and acquaintance, an exercise in excess made almost too easy by the availability of cheap, industrially made, and admittedly useless “gimcracks,” like gaudy figurines, cheap paintings, and poor quality jewelry.

Gimcracks from Waits Modern Christmas

Advertisements for gimcrack gifts, collected in William B. Waits’s book, “The Modern Christmas in America,” from 1994. Click on the image for a better look.

The progressive backlash against this rampant consumerism included a Shop Early Campaign encouraging shoppers to hit the stores well before the advertising-induced last-minute rush and only during regular shopping hours, discouraging extended holiday hours that ruined the season for everyone, not least the store employees. Sound familiar?

A New York Times article from 1913 about a Manhattan rally of Spugs describes the movement’s popularity as “a vigorous protest against the growing custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas without sentiment” and its members as a silent majority “who in his or her heart, had been bitterly resenting the annual hold-ups under the disguise of the Christmas spirit.”

Purcell-Cutts House, Holiday Traditions 2007

The Christmas tree at the Purcell-Cutts House features paper chains, origami ornaments, and butcher-paper wrapped presents beneath. By 1915, popular German-made tin toys were no longer imported due to WWI, so wood or American-made metal toys became popular.

A trip to Mia’s Purcell-Cutts House, built near Lake of the Isles for architect William Purcell, his wife Edna, and their two sons James and Douglas, will open your eyes to Progressive Holiday traditions, as these early alternative approaches were known. Winterlights tours are offered on weekends through December 31. As the landmark of Prairie School design is decorated for the season, you’ll see some signature manifestations of the anti-consumerists, who had natural allies within the Arts and Crafts movement that spawned the Prairie School. 

Proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States linked its philosophy to gift-giving. The Craftsman, an Arts and Crafts magazine published by Gustav Stickley, ran an article called “The Christmas Present Problem,” which stated, “We want to give something that is distinctly individualistic…something that is so intrinsically beautiful it will always remain an object of value to the friend.”

A photograph taken at William Purcell’s grandmother’s house, the Catherine Gray House in Minneapolis, likely shows the wedding presents given to William and Edna in December 1908, including a waistcoat and tie for William, and nightgowns, stockings, and embroidered bags and purses for Edna—some of which may have been “halfways." (Photo courtesy William Gray Purcell Papers, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.)

A photograph taken at William Purcell’s grandmother’s house in Minneapolis likely shows the wedding presents given to William and Edna in December 1908, including a waistcoat and tie for William and embroidered bags and purses for Edna—some of which may have been “halfways.” (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Libraries)

This led to the sale of what were called “halfways,” such as linen purses printed with a pattern that was hand-embroidered by the gift-giver in the popular Arts and Crafts style.

The Handicraft Guild of Minneapolis had a shop downtown at the time and was a prime source for local ceramics, jewelry, leatherwork, and other Arts and Crafts objects made by artists on the premises.

Christmas cards, very popular by the 1910s, were also pushed as personalized alternatives to cheap gifts. And though few of us can leave it at that today, rest assured there is plenty of precedent for a less-is-more holiday.

The Spugs are on your side.