Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays -- Research Guide

Gift Books and Annuals

The Collection

These charming publications flourished in England and America from the 1820s through the 1850s, reaching their peak in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Uusally issued at Christmas and intended as a "Christmas, New-Year's and Birthday present", gift books were elegantly produced and included short stories, poems, essays, and were often illustrated with colored plates. Many of the best-known writers of the day contributed to them, and in their pages may be found first printings of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others. The Harris Collection holds copies of approximately 94% of the gift books published in the United States.

In evaluating the literary and artistic worth of the gift book, bibliographer Frederick Faxon noted:

The literature of the "gift books" was remarkable for its freedom from the slightest taint of impropriety. There was never a contribution that savored of the lack of refinement. These volumes were intended as gifts, and were such tha t they might ornament the drawing-room table of the most fastidious withoutoffense either to mind or eye. (p. xxi)

Gift books are futhere notable in that many of the most popular and well-known were edited by women. Alice and Phoebe Cary edited The Josephine Gallery (1859), and Lydia Maria Child edited Looking Towards Sunset (1865) and The Oasis (1834). Sarah Josepha Hale (of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" fame) edited The Opal in 1845, 1848, and 1849. Lydia Sigourney edited the Religious Souvenir in 1839 and 1840. Emily Percival edited Gems of Beauty each year from 1849 to 1855. Sarah C. Edgarton Mayo edited The Rose or Sharon from 1840 to 1849; from then until 1857 it was edited by Caroline M. Sawyer.

See Also:
» Nineteenth-Century Literature
» Women's Writings

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Related Collections

The Manuscripts Collections hold numerous commonplace books of the 19th century. These works, composed of copied-out verse an d aphorisms, interspersed with pasted-in clippings, autographs, dried flowers, and the like, have many similarities to the gift books, and may usefully be studied in conjunction with each other.

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Essential References

Faxon, Frederick W.
Literary annuals and gift books; a bibliography 1823-1903
[1st ed.] reprinted
[Pinner, Middlesex] Private Libraries Association, 1973

Felmingham, Michael
The illustrated gift book, 1880-1930 : with a checklist of 2500 titles.
Aldershot [Hants, England] : Scolar Press, 1988

Kirkham, Edwin Bruce
Indices to American literary annuals and gift books, 1825-1865 / compiled by E. Bruce Kirkham and John W. Fink
New Haven, Conn. : Research Publications, 1975

Thompson, Amy Adwyna
An examination of the gift-books and annuals in the Harris Collection of Brown University
[Providence] 1931

Thompson, Ralph
American literary annuals & gift books, 1825-1865.
New York, The H. W. Wilson company, 1936

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