Gifting Palm Beach style

Tis the season to gift shop, and oh what to buy? To get the creative juices flowing, maybe take inspiration from some former Palm Beachers.

How about a new home for your Beloved? In 1902, Henry Flagler built Whitehall for Mary Lily Kenan as a wedding present. With 75-rooms, 100,000-square-feet-plus, electricity, central heat, indoor plumbing, and telephones, the New York Herald noted that Whitehall was “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”

Other gifts Flagler showered upon Mary Lily included Standard Oil stock, a diamond bracelet, a Burmese pigeon’s blood ruby-and-diamond ring and a 60-inch, opera-length strand of perfectly matched natural pearls with a 12-carat diamond clasp that cost $2 million. “According to Tiffany & Co., the necklace is the most expensive piece of jewelry it has ever sold, when corrected for inflation,” says Tracy Kamerer, chief curator at Whitehall.

Flagler frequently purchased wedding gifts, party favors for guests and personal gifts for family members from Tiffany’s. A holiday list from a personal letter details the purchase of “a locket and chain, powder box with puff, two fans, two silver vases, brushes, and an umbrella,” Kamerer says.

A display (at Whitehall) of the Flagler’s affections is a breakfast set of Limoges porcelain decorated with oranges, orange branches and leaves, made by Tressemann & Vogt between 1883 and 1908. “The Flaglers gave the set as a wedding present to Mr. and Mrs. Warren Smith around 1902.  Smith was Mr. Flagler’s personal secretary before and while he lived at Whitehall. The set was imported by Greenleaf & Crosby, a jeweler that operated stores in Hotel Ponce de Leon and Hotel Royal Poinciana,” Kamerer says.

When it came to gift-giving, Marjorie Merriweather Post had a generous spirit, says Estella Chung, Hillwood historian and its curator of American Material Culture. But she was surprised about what she uncovered while researching for her book, Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriweather Post.

“I was anticipating extravagance, but, rather, I found tokens of holiday affections: Christmas wreaths, flowers, napkins, even turkeys,” Chung says.

Lists of gifts given and received are part of the museum’s research archives, she explains. “The lists were very much like accounting ledgers. She managed her homes so beautifully and she was a natural with numbers; the ledgers were an easy way to keep organized.”

Post, like Santa, made her lists, checking them twice. “She kept lists of gifts she received, checking off when she sent a proper thank-you note, and in reverse, checked off if she received a thank-you note.

“Here’s what she received as a holiday gift from Harry Winton. It just reads ‘Harry Winston, box of cheese.’

“And here’s an interesting exchange; she received flowers. She kept floral arrangements in all her homes. She had a green house at Hillwood, and she’d fly the orchids down to Mar-a-Lago in her plane, so flowers were a thoughtful gift.”

Chung notes a gift exchange with Ladybird Johnson: “Marjorie gave a donation to Ladybird’s pet project, a Society for a More Beautiful Capital, and then for Christmas, the First Lady sent Marjorie a basket of baked bread from the White House with peach and pear preserves from the LBJ ranch.”

Post gave subscriptions to the National Symphony, she was one of the main benefactors at that time, and  she was generous with her lady friends and staff, says Chung. “She gave them luxurious hosiery after World War II when it was hard to come by and I remember seeing gifts of perfume back and forth.”

Upon interviewing Post’s Mar-a-Lago superintendant, Jimmy Griffin, Chung learned that Post gave a good friend, a socialite who had fallen on hard times, a job as her personal Christmas shopper. “Wherever the woman traveled, she bought gifts that she sent back to Mar-a-Lago. “

These were token-type present: scarves, picture frames, cocktail napkins, fancy paper party hats.

“Closer to the holidays, Marjorie’s friend was given a room to work from at Mar-a- Lago, and she would write up a list of what would go to whom. Then the presents were wrapped and sent.”

Life might have been hard, but Palm Beach’s settlers found time to celebrate the holidays, too.  A 1979 Palm Beach Life “PB Dateline” article lists Christmas gifts given in 1891, recorded in an old ledger from Palm Beach’s first store, Edward Brelsford’s general store.

Mrs. F. E. Brown bought herself a pair of shoes for $2.25, and a collar for her husband at $1.25. E.N. Dimick bought currants, candy, shirts, two toilet brushes, one looking glass, one rattle, one violin, a picture frame, three handkerchiefs and a tiny copper kettle. He came back Christmas morning for a belt and a pair of drawers. George Lainhard bought olives, a picture frame, five pounds of flour and a rubber ball. Also that morning, R.R. McKormick bought six cigars and L.D. Hillhouse picked up a box of candy (for his wife?) for 30 cents and a rifle for himself, $16. John Climmson was the last Christmas Day shopper. He purchased candy, drawers, a shirt, coat and vest, socks, shoes, pants, suspenders, buttons, and then, from the look of his bill, went straight to Christmas service, the best-dressed man in church.

So Gift Givers, if you don’t have a personal shopper, don’t fret. Whether it’s a mansion or jewels, a thoughtful trinket, a pair of suspenders, an umbrella, or whatever the heart-of-your-heart desires, a shop on the Island (has always had and) will most likely have it, except for maybe the drawers…

This year’s trends:

Taking the temperature of gift giving in general, people are in high spirits for the holidays, according to a report by the American Affluence Research Center. 89% of the women and 72% of men surveyed expect  to receive a holiday gift this year. Popular items on their gift lists include some form of currency (gift card, cash or check – 46%). Clothing (36%) comes in second.  Books, CDs and DVDs (16%), jewelry (14%), iPad or similar tablet (13%), and sports equipment (13%) also made the wish list.

Spending is “up,” too, according to the Harrison Group and American Express Publishing’s 2013 Holiday Forecast.

Specific holiday spending trends include:

  • Total U.S. consumer spending on gifts this holiday season is estimated at $71.3 billion: 7.7% higher than last year’s forecast of $66.3 billion.
  • The 90% are expected to spend $50.6 billion, up 7.4% from last year’s forecast ($47.1 billion)
  • The Top 10% (affluent and wealthy consumers) are expected to spend $20.7 billion, up 8% from 2012’s forecast ($19.1 billion)

Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group and the study’s director observed, “While holiday shopping will be conservative among the Top 10%, it appears that the 90% are opening their wallets as they return to more traditional holiday spending patterns after a dismal end to last year’s holiday season. The group to really watch is the Core Affluent.  They are growing in size, boosting their spend and getting more and more comfortable with luxury brands as they do so.”

Written for the Palm Beach Daily News “Holiday Gift Guide”


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