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Crisis gift giving: What Calgarians gave 100+ years ago

Seated on my apartment’s mail shelf in Parkdale is a parcel that would have been considered an odd gift just a few weeks ago.

It was a container of Lysol wipes and a six-pack of toilet paper, beautifully topped with a neat blue bow.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of our social norms, including the items that we consider gift worthy.

This certainly isn’t the first global event to shift Calgarians’ gift giving practices. The First World War saw Calgarians shipping not toilet paper, but socks to their loved ones serving overseas. These everyday objects were highly valuable as dry socks could prevent soldiers from developing trench foot.

Socks were far from the only comfort found in military mailbags. With a little creativity, families sent many odd and usual presents through the mail.

Chocolate or Vanilla?

In May 1917, the McDougall family sent their 25-year-old son John Alexander an entire chocolate cake.

An impressive feat considering that it took weeks or even months for packages to reach soldiers in Europe. 

Calgarians shipped a wide array of cakes across the globe during the war, including Christmas fruitcakes and slices of wedding cake. These were sent as ways to include soldiers in the celebrations they had missed.

Excerpts of two pages from John Alexander McDougall, on the receipt of his cake. FROM THE CANADIAN LETTERS AND IMAGES PROJECT

War Trophies

Soldiers also sent some unusual gifts to their loved ones at home. George Redman sent his sister a rosary which he found in a destroyed church. Also a button which he “cut off a dead German.”

War souvenirs like buttons, watches or even wedding rings belonging to German soldiers were regularly taken by Canadians as keepsakes and tangible evidence of their success in battle. Although it was illegal, soldiers also stole personal items from prisoners of war.

A Dirty Letter

Joan Winterbottom was likely surprised to find an unusual gift squished between the pages of a letter she received from her brother Sydney. It was mud. He instructed her to wet the mud, which he had taken from a trench, so she could see how sticky it became.

“We just love [the mud] here,” he joked, “in fact, we hardly ever go anywhere without packing it around on us. We eat lots of it too – can’t help it. The other day I saw a rat licking up mud like you do sugar.”

One Short

The gift Sydney Winterbottom found inside his parcel in October 1915 was not odd in itself. The quantity, however, appears to have left him puzzled.


“I might as well tell you that on opening the parcel,” he began in a letter to his mother. “I found only three socks. I don’t see why you couldn’t have sent five and be done with it. At least I would have had two pairs.”

Historic Gifts

In many ways, gifts are reflections of the historical contexts in which they are sent. A month-old chocolate cake or a stolen watch would be as odd of a gift today as roll of toilet paper would have been in 1918 (or 2018 for that matter).

During the war, families on the homefront sent gifts intended to bring joy and comfort to soldiers, reminding them of past happiness and future hope.

While soldiers like George Redman and Sydney Winterbottom sent gifts that represented the unique experiences they were having and the distant places they had seen.

We invite readers to tell us what kinds of physical – or virtual – gifts you have been sending during the present pandemic and quarantine in the comment section below.