Today we have a sterling silver napkin ring, given to Thomas M. Anderson, Jr. (1930-1991) of Rockville for Christmas in 1932. How do we know? It’s engraved “Thomas Anderson Jr Xmas 32.” Also, the donor (George Anderson, Thomas’s brother) told us that it was used by his brother throughout his childhood. And the happy clincher: We have a list of all the presents young Thomas Jr received for Christmas in 1932, including a “Napkin Ring [from] Mrs. Booker” along with toys, clothes, and other wonderful things.  (For the full list, see the bottom of this post.)

Child's napkin ring, from the 1896 Marshall Field catalog.

The tradition of giving silver or pewter items to babies and young children goes back to at least the 18th century in America, and even earlier in Europe. Colonial silversmiths made baby rattles and pap boats (infant feeders) as well as adult-aimed wares. Catalogs from the mid 19th century include silver tableware meant for children; for example, an 1878 Gorham Manufacturing Company catalog listed “For children: Cups, napkin rings, bowls, porringers, pap boats, cup sets, plates, knife, fork and spoon, Christening sets, rattles, whistles.” (Quoted in Katherine Morrison McClinton’s Collecting American 19th Century Silver, 1968.) The tradition continues today, although the gift is more likely to be symbolic, intended as a keepsake rather than as the spoon, mug or porringer Baby actually uses.

We have a large Anderson family collection, both artifacts and archival material, thanks to Thomas and George Anderson. The collection includes the baby books of both brothers (born 1930 and 1933) and their father Thomas M. Anderson Sr. (born 1902). (According to his baby book, Mr. Anderson Sr also received several silver baby items for his christening and first Christmas.) The list of Thomas Jr’s 1932 presents was recorded in a small black notebook, along with the wedding presents given to Thomas Sr and his wife Berthy Girola Anderson. Mrs. Anderson had very distinctive handwriting (see the heading of the Christmas present list), which makes it clear that much of the information in her sons’ baby books, as well as the list of 1932 gifts, is not written in her hand. Did their father make notes in the book? Or was it a grandmother, or perhaps a nanny?

The majority of our collections do not come with such convenient names and dates engraved right on them, let alone archival material to back it up. This makes it a bit churlish of me to wish that we also had a photograph of Thomas Jr enjoying Christmas 1932, or his first Christmas (or any Christmas). Here’s a nice little photo of him outside his Rockville home, though, around 1931 or 1932.

 Bonus (your holiday gift from me, as it were) – here’s the description of Thomas Jr’s First Christmas, from his baby book: “December 25th, 1930. Baby was eight months & 20 days old. Had a Christmas Tree. He loved his first tree and took much notice of a bell that was on the tree. He was very good on xmas Day. All the family came over to dinner and baby sat at the table in his high chair. He was very good. He received many toys for Xmas but his favorite toy was a wood man. His mother gave him a lovely blue silk coat.”

Thomas Jr's Christmas gifts, 1932. The napkin ring is #14 on the list.