Diarist Emma Balfour was a last-minute Christmas shopper

Published 1:00 am Sunday, December 18, 2011

This appropriately timed column is being reprinted.

It was their first Christmas season together, and Emma and William Balfour anticipated giving one another gifts. They were newlyweds, having married in mid-December 1847 at Emma’s brother’s home at Faunsdale, Ala.

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In Vicksburg they were living in the Prentiss House, a fine hotel near the waterfront, while they anticipated buying a home.

For two days Emma had worked on a coin purse for her husband, and it was ready one evening when he came home from the office. Emma left it on a table in their apartment while they had tea. In a letter to her sister-in-law, Lou, at Fauns-dale she related the episode, concluding, “When I came back what do you think had befallen it? Two large holes were burnt in it! Margaret Ann (a servant) in snuffing the candle had let the snuff fall on it.”

Emma said she could have cried because she had tried so hard to get it ready, “and I minded it still more when William took out of his pocket a beautiful pearl letter folder he had bought me as a gift.” She made him another coin purse, but it was a belated gift.

The Balfours exchanged gifts not only at Christmas but also on New Year’s Day. In a series of letters Emma wrote in the 1847 to 1857 period, all to Lou, she annually mentioned Christmas. She loved both giving and receiving and often described gifts.

One year William gave her “a beautiful, exquisite, work table of papier mache — the most perfect thing of the kind I ever saw.” Dr. Balfour also gave her a gold thimble and a book about birds, and one of her lady friends gave her a silver pickle knife and fork, in a case, but the present she liked most was two $50 California gold pieces inside the work table — “the most valuable part of the furniture.”

Several years later Dr. Balfour gave her a writing desk “and to add to its value, there is a little secret drawer” which Emma found after a long search, and in it were “thirty little gold dollars! Of course, I am not to be expected to spend them for any ordinary thing!” At the same time her closest friend, Mrs. Ann Lake, gave her a card basket “exquisitely beautiful…far too beautiful to use except on extraordinary occasions…”

A box of gifts was always sent to Faunsdale for Lou and her family. Such shipments had to be made by steamboat to New Orleans, then across the Gulf to Mobile, then up the Tombigbee River to near Demopolis and then by stage another 20 or so miles to its destination. It wasn’t unusual for such packages not to arrive on time. Sometimes Emma told Lou what was in the package, such as slippers for her brother made by Southwestern Indians or silver salt stands for Lou, and almost always some bulb plants, with instructions for storing and planting. Emma and Lou both loved flowers, so there couldn’t have been a more appreciated present than when William gave Emma a copy of “Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Plants,” a gardeners bible with over 12,000 illustrations.

Whatever Emma sent, she advised them to receive it “with a hearty embrace and a Christmas kiss and love…”

Emma usually waited until Christmas Eve before she went downtown to buy the children’s presents. A cold rain was falling that would soon turn to ice or snow, but she went anyway, wishing that her niece had been with her to visit the downtown shops where the selections both thrilled and bewildered her. There were items that were both beautiful and ingenious. Nothing thrilled her more than a large doll “with everything that you could think of to form the most complete and extensive wardrobe of a lady — even to the corsets and garters” along with capes, cloaks, an opera hat — “in short, everything that a lady could ask for — and all made in the most exquisite style.”

“Willie (the Balfours’ son) says he is going to hang up his tommy, as he calls his stocking,” Emma wrote, adding that William was very mysterious about his gift for her, “so we all wait anxiously until tomorrow.”

Despite the weather or any other inconvenience, Emma admitted that she looked forward to last-minute shopping downtown, writing on Dec. 24, 1853, “To tell the truth, I would be [as] unwilling to miss the sight as any child.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.