Obviously, people give each other gifts all the time, so this not truly “thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore,” but there used to be a lot more RULES about these things that we don’t really have to follow anymore. These rules mainly pertain to gifts given by a man to an unmarried woman (because sexism! And maybe women weren’t really supposed to give gifts to men and this was so well known no one even had to write it down.)
Social Life (1896) by Maud Cook gives these rules about gifts to an unmarried woman:
- The only acceptable gifts for a gentleman to give a lady are flowers, fruits, and candy (despite how expensive these items can be made to be). Since these are perishable items, they leave no obligation upon the lady.
- However, if the lady and gentleman have been talking about a book or musical composition that she does not possess, he may offer to send her a copy and she may accept.
- If inappropriate gifts are given, the lady may say “I thank you for the kindness but I never take expensive presents;” or, “Mamma never permits me to accept expensive presents.” Or her mother might discover the gift and send it back saying “I think my daughter rather young to accept such expensive gifts.”
- After an engagement, the rules would slacken, but real, expensive, useful gifts were supposed to saved until after the wedding.
In the 1920 Etiquette, Emily Post gives a list of rules that an engaged couple must follow about gifts:
- If the man is saving money so that they may get married, he shouldn’t waste his money sending flowers and other little gifts.
- A woman may accept all presents except: wearing apparel, a car, a house, or furniture.
- Basically, a man should not provide his future wife with any real useful objects until after they are married and it becomes his duty to take care of her. For example, a fur scarf would be a fine gift as it is a mere ornament, but a fur coat would not be because it is a useful piece of clothing.
- If an engagement is broken, all gifts must be returned.
My 1954 copy of Etiquette For Young Moderns is unusual in that it has rules for the girl giving gifts to the boy:
- For both genders, it is suggested that gifts not be too expensive or too personal.
- Girls should be especially careful not to give a gift more expensive that what he is giving her AND she shouldn’t give the gift first.
In Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Helen Gurley Brown says: “Don’t give expensive presents to men. Madness!” And also highly encourages women to get expensive presents from men. She also thinks it’s fine to be someone’s mistress, so take all advice with a grain of salt.
In my 1967 copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette book her rules for unengaged people very strict:
- A man’s gift to any girl (other than a relative) must be impersonal until an engagement is announced. The idea is to not imply intimacy or be so expensive that people talk about the girl.
- Acceptable gifts: scarf, gloves, handkerchiefs, small things for the house such as a cocktail shaker or toaster (if she lives alone). Unacceptable gifts: dress, hat, underthings, stockings, or fur. Books are fine, but not a particularly expensive book or set of books.
- A man who visits a woman’s home frequently might restock her liquor cabinet but would never insult her by trying to pay the grocery bill or anything.
- If a girl receives an inappropriate gift she should return it to the giver and tell him “I know you didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift from you, much as I appreciate your kindness in wanting to give it to me. A little present would be better.”
- “To do anything that puts a girl in untenable position is to be less than a gentleman”