Christmas Gift Ideas, 1791

It’s the time of year where every magazine and newspaper has its gift guides – for him, for her, for the kids, presents under £50, under £10, inexplicably expensive stocking presents, even stocking presents for adults (do grown ups really get stockings, still? If so, I want one.)

Ever wonder what kind of presents people would get in centuries past? I generally imagine a kind of Dickensian setting where the kids are getting an orange, some nuts, a hoop and stick and maybe some kind of improving book.

So I was interested to find this advert from what sounds to be a bookseller or general stationer, from the Norfolk Chroncicle in 1791, advertising potential gifts to include in “Christmas boxes”. It’s also fun to see that you can still get a lot of them now, if you wanted to recreate Christmas in 1791. Actually, I do kind of want to do that.

Norfolk Chronicle, 24th December 1791

Norfolk Chronicle, 24th December 1791

There’s card games, such as Cent Dix, there’s a book that I really want to read called “A New Moral System of Geography“, the Bible and various history books, something else called “The Royal Engagement Atlas” and almanacs for the coming year of 1792. There’s also some ideas for the ladies – thread cases, “etwees” (or “etuis”, decorative needle cases) and purses. There’s dictionaries, ink stands and paints. “Reeve’s Cake” sounds a like a historic curiosity, but you can still buy this now – it’s Reeve’s watercolour paints.

Reeve’s were a market leader in these watercolours as they had successfully found a way to prevent the paint cakes from cracking in storage by adding honey to the mixture.

My favourite item is the “La Partie Quarree” (which means “foursome”) conversation cards for ladies. Conversation cards were cards with pictures and vague suggestions to be used to break the ice and start conversations. I love the idea of it, it’s like a parlour game without the actual game, like feeling you’re playing “Just a Minute” while having a chat.

I found some 18th century conversation cards, from this antique dealer also in Norfolk, appropriately enough. Small talk begone, let’s talk about some meatier subjects – death, crimes and punishments, the passing of time and the wheel of fortune.

Conversation cards, 18th century

Conversation cards, 18th century

Conversation cards, 18th century

Conversation cards, 18th century

Beautiful pictures in that 18th century satirical style. Not sure why the fop is what seems to be some kind of goat-man, but he looks a bit like an enlightenment-era hipster. The doctor has a huge wig, which I presume is a comment on his wealth. “Hymen or Marriage” – well, there’s a topic and a half.

The idea is still very much out there – this link will give you some ideas for the conversation round a family dinner table, but there’s loads of variations out there. And, strangely enough, as often happens when I find something for this blog, I happen to come across other relevant bits of information from completely unrelated sources. The Pool have just advertised some absolutely lovely conversation mugs, with exactly the same idea, except for a chat over a cup of tea. They’re from the brilliantly-named shop Dept. Store for the Mind
Conversation mugs

My first thought on conversation cards, though, was this, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which was possibly the first thing of theirs I ever saw. A rather unsuccessful conversation on philosophers (which is also very 18th century).



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