If you think the war on Christmas is about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays or a design on take-out coffee cups, these Wednesday’s Women would beg to differ. They were Spugs … members of the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, or SPUG.
In 1912, Manhattan socialites and philanthropists Eleanor Belmont and Anne Morgan formed SPUG to fight the crass commercialism of Christmas and the custom of clerks and shop girls giving pricey gifts to supervisors in hopes of continued employment or favor.
The project grew out of the Working Girls’ Vacation Fund, established in 1911 as a weekly savings program. By 1912 the group had 6,000 members with savings of $30,000. But those savings faced a right jolly old foe: Christmas. Citing strength in numbers, Belmont urged Vacation Fund members to form a new group strong enough to abolish any custom that “does not benefit mankind and has not the true spirit of giving behind it.”
Newspapers across America jumped on the story. Ten-cent dues poured into headquarters in return for official buttons and membership cards. SPUG Squads of at least five women — enough to stand up to any boss –wore white buttons with a festive holly spray around the word. But not everyone was buying it. Some branded the women “glum spugs” and anticipated “death by spugitis.” Others immediately co-opted the movement in the true spirit of crass commercialism. One furniture dealer advertised rugs with his own take on the acronym: “Special Prices on Useful Gifts.”
Their crowning moment was a Washington, DC, rally where First Daughter Margaret Wilson proudly joined SPUG leaders onstage.
Founders insisted the organization was women-only as men, tired of Christmas debt, clamored to join. Even Teddy Roosevelt jumped on the bandwagon. “Bully!,” the NY Times quoted his approbation, “Can’t I be a charter Spug?”
White House SPUG endorsement
The next day’s headline proclaimed Roosevelt “First Man Spug!” and, within a week, membership included over 500 men. As Christmas of 1913 neared, the Times trumpeted “Spugs on the Warpath Again!” as New York’s district attorney spoke to 1,200 Spugs about the “War on Christmas Graft.”
But their crowning moment was a Washington, DC, rally where First Daughter Margaret Wilson proudly joined SPUG leaders onstage. Alas, cracks threatened the movement as marketers hyped sales for everything from hats to men’s suits to magazines, determined to turn the movement’s anti-commercial, feminist origin on its head.
In response, the Spugs put a new spin on their name. It would now stand for the kinder- , gentler-sounding Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving. Members joined local drives for needy families; a Park Avenue Christmas party promised “Useful Presents to Every Lonely Person Who Comes” and “Candy for the Children.”
SPUG’s last hooray
Some 13,000 New Yorkers showed up to claim bags of candy, marvel at a 40-foot Christmas tree from the state of Maine, and cut a rug at a dance emceed by one of the most dedicated local Spugs — the city coroner. But by mid-June of 1914 the Spugs had far more important things on their minds as all eyes turned to Europe with the outbreak of World War I.
Founder Anne Morgan threw herself into relief efforts for France; co-founder Eleanor Belmont had drifted away even before the war. The movement quietly slipped back into the women’s savings fund that started it all.
Ironically, sales survived SPUG itself as advertisers still hawked shoes for Spugs and Oregon Gas & Electric used a “SPUGS DAY” ad to sell gas ranges. MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!!