Until I read a recent issue of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I had never heard of SPUG: the Society for Prevention of Useless Giving. I was so amazed that I double-checked to make sure SPUG was legit and not some sort of seasonal prank. After all, academics have been known to pull fast ones in the service of protesting the arcane nature of modern research. Sure enough, SPUG was the real deal.
SPUG formed in 1911 and lasted into the 1940s, though along the way it had a name change to the more positive-sounding Society for Useful Giving. Philanthropic upper-class Society women formed SPUG. Their original inspiration was the disgust they felt toward merchants and advertisers that lured factory workers and working-class women into squandering money on needless things during the Christmas season. Weddings were a close second. SPUG launched an educational and propaganda campaign aimed at convincing those with scant resources not to waste their wages. Were SPUG advocates forerunners of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch? Nope. They had no objection to giving per se–they simply wanted to stop the practice of spending money on novelties, junk, and baubles and shift it to useful things. They reasoned that if one is going to shell out for a gift, it ought to be something the recipient can actually use or appreciate.
So why am I telling you about SPUG? Because it’s the day after Christmas, known in British Commonwealth nations as Boxing Day. It’s akin to Black Friday in the States, a day of retail gluttony featuring markdowns, extended retail hours, and various advertising come-ons. There is, however, a small twist–it’s also the day in which people begin to return unwanted presents opened the day before. We Yanks do this too, but we ought to do so with the zeal of Europeans. As SPUG evolved, it paid attention to recipients as well as givers. A gift, they reasoned, should not be a life sentence; in fact, every individual should purge one’s self of unneeded and unwanted things. As SPUG advocates expressed it, one should never keep anything that isn’t either useful or beautiful. They hoped to move Americans beyond the sentimentality that makes a person keep an ugly lamp in the closet just because Aunt Mary gave it to you. SPUG’s simple advice: Get rid of it!
Those of you reading this blog on Boxing Day can probably conjure an item or two from yesterday that doesn’t enhance your life in any measurable way. So get them out of your house. Return them to the store, re-gift them, donate them to charity or, if necessary, throw them away. We now live in a society in which materialism is more than crass; it’s expensive. In 1984 Americans stuffed items into 289 million square feet of storage bins; by 2007 it had grown to over 2.2 billion square feet. Each year about $20 billion is spent just to squirrel away goods, and some Americans spend more to store their stuff than it would cost to buy the items new. Compulsive hoarding is now recognized as a bona fide psychological ailment. Would it surprise you to learn that, in most cases, the cost of treatment for hoarding disorder exceeds the value of the items hoarded?
SPUG isn’t around anymore, but maybe it’s time to revive it. One of its major virtues was that it asked people to operate within their own value systems, not transform themselves into aesthetes, monks, or Spartans. Remember, the standard was to keep only what is useful or beautiful. Each of those standards involves a qualitative judgment. I don’t find a painting of Elvis on velvet to be beautiful but if you do, by all means hang it above the sofa. On the other hand, if a friend gave it to you as a joke, have a laugh, burn it, and send the ashes to Graceland. Whatever you do, don’t store it.
I claim no greater virtue on this issue. Like many Americans, I own more than I use, have boxes I’ve not opened in years, and possess things that I once thought were beautiful but don’t anymore. I doubt I can go cold turkey and just starting chucking everything. (Phoenix could!) But my New Year’s resolution is to turn back the hands of time and become a member of SPUG. I pledge that I will begin to wean myself of useless and non-beautiful things and work hard to resist adding to the household stash. The goal is to be lighter a year from today. Anybody else in on this? I’m thinking a SPUG support group.