We know about the Depression. It’s that time from the end of the Twenties through the early Forties that tried the souls of citizens around the world. We hear about sparse meals, clothing budgets, and jobs. But sometimes we miss the details of what it was like to survive the Thirties. For instance, gathering together for a night of bridge or other game qualifies as cheap entertainment. But what to give as party gifts in the Depression?
Bridge and club parties meant gifts for participants
Immensely popular during the Thirties and Forties, bridge allowed groups of four to twelve people to gather once a month. Every month brought a predictable card game, a small prize for the winner, and simple refreshments at the end. Usually these clubs met in the afternoons, in between morning work and dinner preparation. (Of course, a bridge club can have as many members as it likes, but as a child of the Sixties I never saw more than four card tables set up inside a home at one time.) During the Twenties through the Fifties, clubs that met in homes kept their membership low so everyone could fit inside at once.
So card game parties with coffee and a few cookies at the end provide an inexpensive evening or afternoon of fun. However, what does one do for the day’s winner when money is tight? Prior to the Depression, Twenties card clubs gave all kinds of gifts. A club might arrange a shower where everyone brought a gift to the new homeowner, bride, or mother –– the member of honor for the month.
Or the winner might go home with a travel book to record vacation wanderings. It came complete with a leather cover and helpful maps. Maybe the winner scored enough to snag a nice leather address book. Perhaps she took home a new set of bridge cards or an at-home book that visitors filled out like a guest register when they called upon her. These gifts ranged from $3.00 to $7.50 in 1928. These gifts were worth $48 to $120 in today’s dollars.
What’s a hostess to do?
All this stopped when the Depression hit. Imagine being able to afford a $75 gift when you host a card party during a recession or depressed economy. You can’t. There’s no way.
However, club members found ingenious ways to save their meetings. Party gifts in the Depression would continue. They required some creativity, however.
Raid the flower garden
The town master gardener could always turn to her flowers when she hosted. Many flowers planted in vintage gardens were perennials. They came up every year. Not only that, but they spread every year, too. Everybody in the community might have spearmint outside the back door for use in recipes, but not everyone had lilies, gladiolus, cosmos, or coneflowers. One of the easiest and least expensive gifts from the gardener is a beautiful planter of starts that the winner could take home and transfer to her own garden.
Anything new was unique to many during the Depression. One thoughtful hostess purchased a handful of current magazines from the news shop. A club hostess knew the general reading tastes of her club, so she could choose unusual titles with interesting reading. Five current magazines from the shop cost about fifty cents, a far cry from the $3.00 price tag of earlier times. These might even be read by the winner and passed among club members for a good many months afterward.
Bake the best
If you baked the best angel food cake in town, and had eggs to spare from a backyard coop, a beautiful angel cake might elicit delight and envious looks. A nice tall cake covered with fluffy white frosting and decorated with candy rosebuds available at local stores –– what a nice gift! For the winner of the day, dessert is solved. This solution worked well for the groups whose members already had everything.
Eggs-actly the thing
One hostess was the wife of a poultry farmer. She dressed an eight pound hen (this had to be a duck or small turkey!) and gave it along with a dozen eggs to the winner of her bridge party. Her second-place winner received a chicken fryer, cut up and ready to cook, and she also sent half a dozen eggs home as a booby prize! While unconventional, she said the gifts went over well. It would be hard to top that the next month, to be sure.
Baskets of deliciousness
Another hostess found herself with an overflowing vegetable garden. She decided to put this to good use while she served as club party hostess. She gave the first prize winner a large basket filled with golden peaches and purple grapes. The second prize winner took home a golden squash surrounded by red apples. Her third prize winner took home a bouquet of autumn flowers. And finally, as a consolation prize the last place “winner” received a bouquet of carrots tied to look like a bunch of flowers. The carrot leaves surrounded the vegetables to frame them. These items would be cherished party gifts in the Depression.
Creativity in times of lack
These show just a few examples of hostess ingenuity as they searched for party gifts in the Depression. These women had very little during the Depression, yet they still managed to create a fun and memorable party out of almost nothing but what they had lying around.
What might today’s guests appreciate from a limited-budget host? Here are some ideas:
- Homemade Chex Mix in a jar or container
- A cookie platter of family favorites, with or without the recipes
- Flowers from your garden is an eternal pleaser
- A start or two from your prized plants, whether they be pothos or cactus
- Knitted or crocheted pot holders or dish cloth from cotton yarn you have stashed away
- A silly chick flick from the $2 bin at your local store, along with a package or 1/2 cup popcorn
- A few unusual colored pencils from the art store, sold separately, if your group contains artsy members
When money is tight, make it useful; make it edible; or make it beautiful. You can’t go wrong following these criteria.
Find out more
If you want to read about parties in an earlier time, see this short series on Halloween parties in the Twenties. And if the idea of hosting a bridge club party interests you, the American Contract Bridge League was formed in 1937, during the Depression… exactly the same year that offers these gift suggestions above..