The desperate quest to please loved ones can lead to purchases around holiday time that you would never consider the other eleven months out of the year.
In 1953 LIFE acknowledged the occasional absurdity of holiday commerce with a guide to some the odder “fancy” items being offered to shoppers. LIFE photographer Yale Joel wittily executed the idea by shooting these silly objects in a high-fashion setting, as if a jewel-encrusted spray gun was in fact the pinnacle of glamour.
Then, in 1969, photographer Yale Joel came back with a more outlandish version of the same premise.
The guide in LIFE’s December 7, 1953 issue was headlined “Good-for-Nothing Gifts,” with the tagline, “they are better to give than to receive.” According to the story, one of the hottest gift of 1952 was—for real—a sequined fly swatter. This meant that in 1953, manufacturers produced fancy versions of other household objects to try to capitalize on the trend. This led to all sorts of odd offerings: “Holiday shoppers whose main object is to pamper the recipient may choose jeweled backscratchers which are almost too pretty to use, velvet eyeglasses which are designed to be worn instead of a hat, timepieces for pets who cannot tell time.”
Thus did ordinary objects gain big price tags. The encrusted backscratcher, for instance, retailed for $6.95 at Lord and Taylor—which would about $70 in 2020 prices. Even today, you can buy backscratchers in packages of six for ten bucks.
But Lord & Taylor’s bejeweled backscratcher was a major bargain compared to the gifts Joel shot for another tongue-and-cheek gift guide years later in LIFE’s December 12, 1969 issue. This guide promised to have “something for everyone, and a few things for nobody.”
The guide included an 80-carat diamond for $450,000 (more than $3 million today), a “Masterpiece of the Month” club for art lovers ($1 million, or $7.2 million today) in which buyers would receive works of 20th century masters by mail, and a kit for making your own fur coat from 75 sable fur pelts for $125,000, “including tailoring.”
Then there’s a giant phone receiver ($5, or $36 today), which would get this gift guide’s award for Best Sight Gag.
If nothing else, Joel and the editors of LIFE seemed to be having fun. Maybe that’s the real lesson for stressed-out shoppers: It’s the holidays. You may want everything to be perfect, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself.