Now that the holidays are over, many disappointed gift recipients are heading to the mall to return their useless, unattractive or thoughtless presents. Next year, why not spare them the trouble, and give cash instead?
It makes economic sense — many economists see cash as the most efficient gift, because it allows recipients to choose exactly what they want.
But this horrifies traditionalists, who see giving cash for Christmas as the ultimate commodification of a sacred ritual. Money is acceptable for charitable donations or bonuses, but certainly not for friends or family.
It turns out that both the economic realists who give money as presents and the traditionalists have history on their side, because this is a debate that began back in the early 20th century. As the consumer society expanded and Americans began giving more Christmas presents to more people, money emerged as an acceptable gift. Christmas money, according to a 1912 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, "supplies dearly cherished wishes, adds small luxuries, prevents worriment and gives opportunities for helpfulness as no other gift does."
But how was a recipient to know that a dollar was a gift dollar? That something made of the same legal tender used to buy the daily newspaper, tip waiters and bribe politicians was in fact a gift expressing personal affection?
The challenges of giving money were captured by this 1920s vaudeville act:
He: It's bad form for a person to leave the price mark on a gift, isn't it?
She: Yes, and I knew a woman who was so absent-minded that when she gave a $50 bill for a Christmas gift, she tried to rub the price mark off of it. … She was giving the $50 bill to her married daughter, and didn't want her to know how much it was worth.
He: And what did her married daughter do with the $50 bill, when she got it?
She: She took the money, and paid the grocer what she owed him.
He: And what did her mother do?
She: Her mother cried, and said, although she loved to give a Christmas present, there wasn't much fun in paying her son-in-law's grocery bill.
The key to the problem, early 20th century gift-givers found, was to camouflage money inside a traditional gift. This took effort and it had nothing to do with efficiency, but it enabled people to elevate the gift of cash.
In the December 1909 Ladies' Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to "disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction." She explained how she had incorporated $10 for her mother into artwork. She inserted dollar bills into two posters; one showed five sad bills not knowing where to go, and the other depicted the happy ending: "five little dollars speeding joyfully" toward her mother's purse.
Housewives hid gold coins in cookies and boxes of candies; dollar bills could decorate belt-buckles or picture frames. Women boasted when the recipient failed to realize that the actual present was money. Men also disguised the money they gave to their wives as gifts, to distinguish it from their allowances. If you give her a check, the Ladies' Home Journal advised, "put it in an embroidered purse, or a leather sewing basket or a jewel box which will be a little gift in itself." The better the disguise, the more successful the gift.
Then, in 1910, American Express began advertising money orders as an "acceptable Christmas gift." Western Union improved on the idea by creating distinctive telegrams for sending money for special occasions, while greeting card companies started selling decorative money holders for birthdays and holidays.
After 1905, department stores even designed a new currency: gift certificates. Also called merchandise coupons or gift bonds, these were for a specific sum of money to be spent either on a designated type of merchandise — gloves and shoes were popular items — or, as today, on anything at all at a particular store.
We can't all be as clever as Lou Eleanor Colby, but buying a gift card that restricts what the money can be used for is just another way of distinguishing gift money from regular money, and a way for givers to demonstrate their intimate knowledge of what the recipient likes and cares about.
Nostalgic traditionalists and hard-nosed realists both get it wrong. For over a century, Americans have been demonstrating remarkable ingenuity in turning money into meaningful personal gifts. Let's keep it up. Next year, perhaps take a lesson from the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal and hide cash in a gift of your own creation.
Viviana A. Zelizer, a professor of sociology at Princeton, is the author of "Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy."
© 2011 New York Times