(An Unexpected Perspective on) the History of Gift Giving

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Ah, the gift. A seemingly innocuous 4-letter word that stokes the flames of our entire existence. You think we’re dramatic, but rest assured - there’s a valid reason.

According to some reputable publications, the Gift Card industry will be worth $2.7 billion by 2027 (Globe News Wire), the Personalized Gifts market will grow to $3.47 billion by 2022 (Business Wire), and the Corporate Gifting business is currently worth $125 billion a year (Forbes).

If you’re pondering, “how did all this come to be?” then you’ve come to the right place. Toffee + Twine’s got you covered. Buckle up for a genuinely unexpected perspective on the history of gifting.


The gift of life.

Did you see that one coming?

We can all thank mom, dad, or science, for granting each of us the beautiful gift of existence. Birthrates are falling in the United States, according to U.S. News and World Report. Apparently, women need to have 2.1 children to “replace” (in numbers) the previous generation. At this time, American women are projected to have about 1.71 children in their lifetime.

Newer statistics show that birth rates are lower for women in their 20s and 30s, but higher for women in their 40s. It makes sense. More than ever, women invest their time, money, and energy into other pursuits, including higher education, careers, and world travel. Even more recently, women are at the forefront of tackling social justice, gender, and equality issues. This leaves less time for diapers and more time for picket signs.


Knock knock.

Who’s there?

It’s us, the Greeks. And we’ve come with a gift made by master carpenter Epeius. We offer this giant wooden horse to the goddess Athena. It will make you impregnable. Allow us entrance, oh (gullible) Troy.

Once inside the city gates...well, we all know what happened next. And if you happen not to know what happened in this classic tale, head to the History Channel online for a quick summary.

Not only did the (probably mythical) Trojan Horse “gift” boost the victory for one warring nation above the other, its destructive, disruptive, and damaging power lives on today in computer code, AKA the gift that keeps on giving ( sarcasm).

Trojan horse computer codes are designed to emulate legitimate applications, but they intend to inflict harmful action to your data and network. Learn how to spot a potential Trojan virus via this article by Norton, an industry-leading antivirus and security software company.


The dowry (the transfer of parental property, gifts, or money at the marriage of a daughter) has been around since biblical times. From Exodus 22:16-17, “If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife.”

In ancient Indian times, a dowry was given to the groom and his family in exchange for the bride. In medieval times (old but not quite ancient), a bride’s family gave her cash so that she could maintain her independence after marriage. A dowry’s presence in Indian weddings (though illegal since 1961) is still prevalent today. Read Kavya Sukumar’s 2017 article in Vox.

Even the Brits got in on this cruel practice. During colonial times, the exchange of a dowry became the only legal way to get married in the United Kingdom.

As patriarchal societies weaken and the significant shift toward equality and independence becomes a reality for more women worldwide, may the dowry’s custom fade away for good.


Surprise, surprise - the Internal Revenue Service wants a gift, too! Did you know that large gifts given to friends or relatives might be taxable? I mean, you’d have to gift away over $11 million in cash (or assets, like property) during your lifetime to be on the hook, but still - good to know. Money adds up quickly!

A few types of gifts are tax-exempt. These include contributions to IRS-approved charities, gifts made to a spouse (who must be a US citizen), and gifts to cover medical or education expenses. Get your many gift-inspired tax inquiries answered by the IRS, or for English, press 1 (i.e., connect with a financial professional).


For centuries, countries have given each other gifts to show allegiance, offer peace, display status or wealth, and even secure personal favor (behind closed doors, obviously).

Did you know that the Statute of Liberty was gifted to the Americans by the French as a sign of friendship? Yes, indeed. To mark 100 years of independence and commemorate the French-American alliance during the American Revolution, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi guided the constructed the statue (universally known as Liberty Enlightening the World), which set its roots in New York City in 1885.

In fact, many recognizable American treasures were gifts received from other countries. In 1972, China gifted two giant pandas to the U.S. following Nixon’s visit to the mainland. The offering became a trend and was eventually coined “Panda Diplomacy.”

The Resolute Desk, crafted from the wood of the HMS Resolute (a British Royal Navy ship) and used by presidents including John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, was a gift from Queen Victoria in 1880.

Read about more weird but wonderful gifts given between countries with an infographic by travel writer and designer Harry Peters. Check it out on


As with most origin stories, the beginnings of a “thing” can be found in religion. Most people assume that gift-giving began with Christmas. They are correct-ish. The tradition lies at the intersection of two stories: of Biblical Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus, and that of Saint Nicholas, a 4th Century Christian bishop who was known to give a gift or two in his day. The rest is history.

Today we gift for many a reason: as an expression of love and gratitude, for the appreciation of a job well done, to celebrate the passing of time and the growth and wisdom that comes with it, as a reminder of good times and future desires, out of superstition and for good luck (or to turn bad luck around), and so on and so forth.

Scientists say it’s in our DNA. This New York Times article talks about our impulse to be “generous.” What do you think about your history of gift-giving?


Are you pickin’ up what we’re puttin’ down? If so, subscribe to the Toffee + Twine mailing list to receive this weekly blog. Each week we tap into what’s happening in the world and in your homes to provide a unique perspective on gifts and ideas for gifting. You don’t want to miss out!

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