Bertie’s Christmas Fairy: 1878

Illustration from The Mary Frances Sewing Book.

Illustration from The Mary Frances Sewing Book.


By Fantasia

Bertie was sitting alone in her room, with the oddest little puckers upon her face that had ever clouded its sunny beauty. She was a pretty, fair-haired little girl, not quite ten years old, and she was thinking very deeply. In about a month it would be Christmas, and Daisy Nichols, who lived very near, had been telling Bertie of all the presents she intended to buy for her friends. “I have four dollars and sixty-nine cents in my bank,” Daisy had said, “and seven presents to buy. We are going up to the city soon, and mamma says I may go shopping with her. It is splendid to go shopping for Christmas presents.” Bertie was quite willing to admit that it was splendid, but, after Daisy had gone, a little pang of envy had crept into her heart.

She lived in the country, in a large, old-fashioned house, that was well filled, for Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle John and Aunt Sue, Cousin Will and Cousin Lizzie, all had a home there, besides Bertie’s own papa and mamma, Charlie, who was her oldest brother and past twelve, Maggie and Fannie, her twin sisters, seven years old, and wee, toddling Freddie, who was not quite two. These, with the two servants, Bridget and Jane, were all so dear to Bertie, that really the question of present giving assumed very large proportions. Bertie counted them all on her fingers, and sighed. For Mrs. Hallway, Bertie’s mamma, did not approve of giving children money. She gave her children games, toys, books, some candies, and many pleasures, but she did not like them to have money, and Bertie had never owned a bank, much less four dollars and sixty-nine cents to put into one.

“But I should dearly like to make some Christmas presents!” sighed little Bertie, aloud.

“Would you, my dear?” said a soft little voice very near to her, and the little girl saw standing upon a table beside her, a little woman, who looked very much like the china shepherdess upon the mantlepiece. She had on a blue petticoat, and scarlet slippers, a straw hat, and white waist, and really, on the whole, was so very like the shepherdess that Bertie stole a glance at the mantlepiece. The china shepherdess was gone.

“Yes, my dear; that is me!” said the little woman, following her glance. “My name is Ingenuity. I am very fond of you because you are so neat and so industrious. You always keep me sweet and clean, and you have so many pretty notions about your work, that I really felt as if I must give you a helping hand in your trouble.”

“But I don’t see how you can help me,” said Bertie; “you can’t have any money, you know, and mamma would not let me take it if you had.”

“Very true. But I thought you only wanted the money to buy presents!”

“That is all I do want of it,” said Bertie, wondering how the little shepherdess could know her thoughts so well.

“But you can have the presents without any money,” said Ingenuity. “You need not open your blue eyes so very wide. Clear this table, and let me show you what a little Ingenuity can do to help you.” But Bertie’s eyes would open wider and wider, as she watched this wonderful little fairy. First she darted over to the closet, and turned out in a heap upon the floor all Bertie’s girl treasures, that she kept in nice order. Her work-basket with the pieces of chintz for patchwork, her box of pictures, most of them chromo cards papa had brought home from the city, her box of fancy work materials, scraps of silk, zephyrs, beads, sewing silk, not a very large assortment, but mostly the odds and ends left from the larger pieces of fancy work her mamma, aunt, or Cousin Lizzie had given her.

While Bertie was secretly hoping the fairy would help to put the closet in order again, Ingenuity had flown over to the bureau, and found an old pomatum pot quite empty. With the swiftest of motion, she washed it clean, and then took from the heap of pictures a few with butterflies and flowers on them. She laid these flat, face down, upon the table, and moistened the back, and the paper curled off in layers, till only one thin layer with the picture upon it was left. With a pair of tiny scissors, she cut out the butterflies and flowers, gummed them on the pomatum pot, and then with a wee brush varnished them all over.

“There, my dear!” she said; “that is a jewel-case to put rings and brooches in at night. I am sure Aunt Sue will think it lovely on her dressing table. You can get the varnish, you know, down in Charlie’s workshop, he has some for his carpenter play.” Then she darted off again, and tugged a cigar-box up to the table. “While we are daubing,” she said, “we will make another kind of jewel-box for mamma. First, I line this, as you see, with some of this old flannel petticoat, the one mamma gave you to make over for your dollies. This we cut nicely to fit the box, gum it down on the inside, bottom, sides, and cover. Now we cover that again with this piece of shiny calico, that won’t do very well for patchwork, because it does not wash nicely. The flannel, you see, does not come quite to the edge, so we turn the edge of the chintz in, and gum it down neatly. There! Is not that a soft, pretty bed for jewels?”

“But it is so ugly outside,” said Bertie.

“It is now, but see what I am going to do! This yellow paper you had wrapped around your bundle of school-books last week, and folded away, like a neat little girl as you are, is envelope paper, and quite stiff. We gum that this way, all over the box outside, sides and cover, making it perfectly smooth. Now on the very edge, we put a little narrow slip of this blue paper you have for paper doll dresses. Isn’t that pretty? Now we will cut out some more of the picture cards. This bird for the top, this bunch of cherries for the front, and here are two pretty bouquets for the sides. Now is it ugly outside?”

But before Bertie could half say how pretty she thought it, the little shepherdess was down on the heap again, tugging at a piece of calico, from the patchwork basket. “Isn’t this lovely?” she said, spreading it on the table. “You just cut it into a perfect circle, this way, about twenty-one inches in diameter, and hem the edge.” “I wish I could hem as fast as that,” thought Bertie; for the tiny needle fairly flew round the edge. “Now you put on a facing of tape, about three inches from the edge, all round, on the wrong side. Leave a tiny space open, run in a cord, draw it up a little, and there, my dear, is a Lady Washington sweeping cap for Jane!”

“Oh!” said Bertie; “I did hate to cut up that piece of chintz for patchwork; I am glad I saved it.”

“Now for Bridget,” said the little fairy; “we will take some more of this old flannel, ever so many layers, cut square; whip the edges together strongly, and cover it all with this piece of blue delaine in your doll-baby box. We quilt this nicely, bind it with a little strip of red silk, and here is the most gorgeous iron-holder you ever saw.”

Putting the iron-holder beside the other treasures, Ingenuity opened a box of tiny beads, and with a threaded needle began to pick them out. Upon two threads she made a necklace, by putting three white beads upon each string, then one red one upon both threads together, joining them; then three more on each string, till the whole was long enough for a doll. She joined the ends with one big gold bead for a locket, and then made two wee bracelets to match.

“These are for Maggie’s doll,” she said, sewing them down upon a piece of card; “and we will make Fannie’s a set of furs.”

“Oh, you can’t!” said Bertie.

But Ingenuity took up a piece of new Canton flannel, and cut a tippet, and a straight piece for a muff. She lined them with some tiny pieces of pink silk in the fancy work pile, and sewed the ends of the straight piece together. The ends now formed of the muff, she trimmed with a cord and tassels of pink sewing silk, and put the same on the tippet to tie it at the doll’s neck. From the zephyr she selected some very short pieces of black zephyr [a very fine wool], and separated the threads with a coarse needle. The little fluffy tails thus made she sewed to the Canton flannel with yellow silk, and there was a lovely set of ermine furs for Fannie’s doll. “You know, my dear,” she said, “you can make some doll’s aprons or sacques that would delight Fannie and Maggie, but you know all about those. I dare say you could get some white stuff and make a ruffled apron for Bridget and Jane, if your mamma helped you a little, too.

For grandpa, I’ll tell you something splendid. Run down stairs and get me two adamantine candles. Ask mamma for them. Oh, here are two in the wash-stand drawer! Now get your box of decalcomanie pictures. Here are some tiny vines and birds put them on the candles very carefully, as you do any decalcomanie work. There! You have a pair of painted candles, all in the fashion, for that pair of silver candlesticks on grandpa’s mantlepiece. Be sure he will like them!

For grandma, let me see! Here is a square of coarse linen. If you fringe the edge, this way, about an inch, and then, each way, draw out three threads, and leave three threads, till it is all cross bars of open work, then catch each square with a cross stitch of cotton, sewed and fastened neatly, there is a cake basket cover for grandma, such as she used to make when she was a little girl.”

“Now,” thought Bertie, “what can she be going to do with my old knit scarf? It is all full of holes, and mamma said I must not wear it any more. Why, she is ravelling it all out.”

Like lightning flew the fairy fingers, till the scarf was all a heap of crimson and brown wool upon the floor. Then Ingenuity selected from the pile of articles a pill-box, and into that she put some little pieces of tin, and two broken buttons. Over it she wound the ravelling of the scarf, tightly, smoothly, till she had a ball about the size of an orange. Then she took Bertie’s crochet needle and crochetted a cover, slipping it on when half done, having widened every row to the middle, then narrowing till the ball was covered. Fastening the end carefully, she made a chain with the zephyr about four feet long.

“There,” she said, “is Freddie’s present! A beautiful, soft ball that rattles, and that you can tie to his waist, so he can pull it back when it rolls away.”

Then she darted off to the window sill, and tugged to the table a lovely, red apple Charlie had given Bertie. One slash of a knife, and it was split in two. Ingenuity took out all the seeds, and wiped them very dry. Then she threaded a very fine cambric needle with brown sewing silk. On the pointed end of the seed, she made two tiny ears by passing the thread through, and snipping it off. Whiskers were made in the same way, the silk being separated by the needle into fluffy, fine threads. A long tail was made at the round end by running the needle through the seed lenghtwise, and snipping it off.

”Apple-seed mice!” cried Bertie. “We saw some at the fair.”

When about a dozen mice were made, Ingenuity made a little white cotton bag stuffed full of cotton wool, upon which she wrote “flour,” and sewed it down to a card. Then the mice had some feet given them, by stitches of silk through the card, and through the seeds crossways, fastening them down to the card. They were running over the bag by stitches taken through that and through the mice in the same way.

“Oh, that is for Charlie!” cried Bertie; “he was so pleased with those at the fair, and Mrs. Watson showed me how to make them.”

“Now for papa,” said Ingenuity, “we will make a pen-wiper of some pieces of this scarlet flannel and black silk, cut into circles, each one a little smaller than the one under it. So, first black, then scarlet, and here is a big steel button to finish it off. I think for Uncle John I will make a pocket pincushion. Take these two pieces of card, cut them into circles exactly alike. Cover one with this piece of brown ribbon, the other with this piece of gay plaid silk. Sew them neatly together at the edges, and there is your pincushion. You can embroider the sides if you have time. For Cousin Will, make a book mark of perforated card and ribbon. And for Cousin Lizzie, I would work a “scratch my back.” Just embroider those three words on some perforated card in bright silk, line it with sand paper, and bind it with ribbon, leaving a little loop to hang it up by. Or you can make her a match-box by covering an old tin mustard-box with a perforated card cover, with “matches” worked on it, and cord and tassels of zephyr at each side. Why, my dear Bertie, there are lots of pretty things an industrious little girl like you can make with just what every little girl has in her own treasures. And you may be sure such presents are worth much more to those who love you, than what you buy in the stores.”

“Bertie! Bertie! the tea-bell has rung twice,” called Maggie. Bertie started to her feet, rubbing her eyes. All the pretty things were gone, the closet was in perfect order, the china shepherdess stood smiling on the mantlepiece. Was it all a dream? Mamma thought so. But what was not a dream was the real collection of treasures Bertie did make, just as Ingenuity had taught her, and which she distributed to each and every one on Christmas morning. Mamma helped a little, and papa gave a few new ribbons and pictures, but Bertie made fourteen presents, the cost of all being twenty cents.

Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] December 1878

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil wonders if Cousin Lizzie was rather “fast,” since the two gifts contemplated were a match-box and a match-striker. One fancies one can picture her: shapeless Dress Reform garments of Jaeger wool, a mannish tie, and a straw boater, lighting a gasper in the street while other ladies draw their skirts and their children away in horror.

Although the miniature set of furs do sound charming, Mrs Daffodil is well aware that home-made gifts are not always a success. Young ladies are particularly prone to giving unnecessary fancy-work articles to young men. Mrs Daffodil can do no better than to quote a squib from a 1904 journal:

An exchange for Christmas gifts, where you might unload your celluloid tokens of affection and where harassed young men could swap off the nameless embroidered mysteries that their feminine friends send them for an honest garment, would meet a long-felt want.

Twentieth Century Home, 1904

3 thoughts on “Bertie’s Christmas Fairy: 1878

  1. Pingback: Reginald on Christmas Presents by Saki: 1904 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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