This Month in History – Holiday Gifts

Cape Fear Museum’s collection includes hundreds of books with inscriptions hidden between their covers. The words inked inside paint a portrait of affectionate uncles, sisters, teachers, and friends bestowing works of fiction and nonfiction as gifts and mementos.

This copy of Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England was given as a Christmas gift in 1892. Like much of Dickens’s work, A Child’s History of England was first published as a serial in a magazine. It came out in the 1850s.  Dickens, who is most well-known as a novelist, wrote a decidedly opinionated version of English history.  He skewered many historical figures with his acerbic wit.  For example, in Dickens’s version of history, Henry the Eighth was “…one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath,” and King James I was “ugly, awkward, and shuffling, both in mind and person.”

Forty years later, in 1892, William M. Hoke received Dickens’s book as a Christmas gift from his sister. Katherine was eight when she gave William, aged 12, this book. At the time of the gift, the pair lived with their parents in Lincolnton, North Carolina, a small town near Charlotte.[i] One can’t help but wonder if this would have been an eight year old’s choice of present. So perhaps it was given in her name, rather than chosen by her. Whatever the case may be, at some point Katherine, who married John Hall of Wilmington in 1906 and lived on South 9th Street for decades, came back into possession of the book. Although we don’t know for sure, perhaps it came back to her via her mother, as a memento of her brother after he died in 1916.

While the museum’s copy of A Child’s History of England brings up more questions than it answers, those questions let us imagine family life, relationships, and the emotions that a sister might feel when her older brother dies at aged 36. The people writing notes in the front of the books in our collection were likely not thinking about future historians when they inscribed them. Still, the dedications they left behind add texture to the past, letting us imagine how people in the past felt.  They also give us a chance to think about what someone might say 100 years from now about our own inscriptions in the front of books.

View a sampling of book covers with inscriptions in the Museum’s collection here.

Previous Columns

November: A nurse comes home from war
Wartime football takes the bases by storm
Circus Day
Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England, no date
Inscribed: “Wm. Michal Hoke, Christmas 1892 - from Sister"
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382