The Historical Gift Guide: 15 of the Greatest Gifts in the History of Presents

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Do you have a pal who always leaves you scratching your head when it comes to gifts? Perhaps something here will sound like the perfect present for the person in your life who has everything—everything except a 69-carat diamond, an eagle made of beer can tabs, and fire.

1. For Friends Abroad: A Statue of Liberty

You’re going to need a bigger tree. The official dedication ceremony for France’s gift of the “New Colossus” was in 1886, but the idea had been in the works since 1865, when French politician Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye decided France should do something to honor the U.S. after the Civil War. The statue was built overseas and shipped to the U.S. in pieces. If you’re leaning toward some large statuary like this for your brother from another country, you should probably warn him that he’s going to need to clear some yard space.

2. For Your Shifty Neighbor: The Great Seal of the United States (Bugged)

UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge shows off a replica of the Great Seal of the United States to the Security Council. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement behind Lodge. © Bettmann/CORBIS (1960)

Think your neighbor is going a little Walter White on you? Before you call the DEA, try gifting him with a bugged Great Seal of the United States. In 1945, the Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union presented U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman with a Great Seal, hand-carved from wood, as a gesture of friendship. Their definition of friendship was a little dysfunctional, though, because the gift contained a bug designed by famous Russian inventor Leon Theremin. The bug was hard to detect because it was extremely thin, gave off no signal and had no power supply (this was amazing technology back in 1945, mind you). Harriman hung it in his office at the Ambassador’s House, where the "Thing," as it was later called, went undiscovered until 1952 — three ambassadors later.

3. For Your Friend Who Loves Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Savannah, GA

The only problem with this gift is that you’ll never top yourself. Next year, you’ll have to give your demanding pal a whole state. After that she’s going to expect everything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, that’s sort of what happened in the first place.

General William T. Sherman had been working his troops hard to secure ports from the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After he captured Atlanta in September 1864, Sherman and some of his men disappeared for about six weeks; the White House received no communication from them and President Lincoln feared the worst. Then, on December 22, Sherman sent Lincoln a telegraph with the message: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

4. For Animal-Lovers: A White Elephant

We all know people with pets that are slightly left of center. Hedgehogs, ferrets, pot-bellied pigs. To really impress one of these friends, follow in the footsteps of King Manuel of Portugal and give the gift of a white elephant. The unusual present was given to Pope Leo X in 1514; Leo was so enamored with the pachyderm named Hanno that he commissioned Raphael to paint his portrait.

Hopefully your animal-loving friend is a more responsible pet owner than Leo was. Believing that gold was the answer to everything, Leo supposedly had Hanno’s handlers feed him laxatives laced with gold when he got a little constipated. The gold proved too rich for poor Hanno, and he died at the young age of six.

5. For the Pre-Teen Who Has Everything: Tangier and Bombay

When you’re a member of a royal family, it’s not uncommon to be gifted a rather large parcel. A parcel of land, that is. When Charles II of England agreed to marry Catherine of Braganza in 1640 (she was two years old at the time of the agreement, by the way, and Charles was 10), the dowry he received included the North African town of Tangier and what was then Bombay.

6. For Your Friend Who's Always Quoting Lebowski: A Bowling Alley

A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn’t bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman’s home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn’t use the alley much himself – he was more of a poker player – but the addition was a big hit with Truman’s staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

7. For the Friend With a Green Thumb: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Legend has it the Hanging Gardens were brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amytis, who was terribly homesick for Media (Iran). To help her get over it, the Babylonian king created a mini-paradise containing all her favorite Median plants. It’s not around today because it was allegedly destroyed in an earthquake sometime around 2 B.C. Actually, it may not have actually existed at all. Despite written descriptions of the place, some scholars think it was simply a bit of flowery (literally) imagery. But don’t let that stop you from recreating it for an extra-thoughtful gift.

8. For the Friend Who Wears Too Much Jewelry: The Taylor-Burton Diamond

If you have a friend who loves gems and jewels as much as Elizabeth Taylor did, why not splurge and buy her (or him) the Taylor-Burton Diamond, a 69.42 carat pear-shaped diamond Richard Burton bought for his then-wife in 1969? It was the first diamond ever publicly sold for seven figures, but it proved to be a good investment. When Taylor auctioned off the bauble in 1978, it sold for $5 million. She used the proceeds to buy a hospital in Kasane, Botswana. “They need one badly and I certainly don’t need another ring,” Liz said.

9. For Your Favorite Frenemy: The Trojan Horse

We’ve all got one: the friend you have to get a gift for even though you don’t actually like him or her very much. Why not take a page from the Greeks and hook your frenemy up with a building-sized wooden horse containing a whole army? While your “friend” is admiring the craftsmanship, 30 to 50 men will jump out and destroy her small town. That, of course, is the legend of how Greece finally got into the city of Troy and ended the Trojan War in the 11th or 12th century B.C. Troy probably wishes that particular present had come with a gift receipt.

10. For Your Artsy Sister: Las Meninas

Your sister trolls Etsy for charming and original prints pretty much constantly. Giving her Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez will totally blow her mind. To thank his kingly patron, painter Diego Velázquez created a piece in 1656 that depicted the Infanta Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting, a dog and Velázquez himself. King Philip IV and Queen consort Mariana of Austria are shown in the mirror. The masterpiece can now be found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. If your wallet doesn’t quite allow for the original, by the way, you could always go for a knock-off: Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in the 1950s

11. For Your Grandma, the Queen of Knick-Knacks: Faberge Eggs

Give one of of these jeweled beauties to your grams and she’ll think of you every time she dusts around it. The first Imperial Faberge egg was created for Tsar Alexander III, who wanted to give his wife an extra-special Easter egg in 1885. The bauble was such a hit that the Tsar did it every year afterward (we’re sure it will be a lovely tradition for you and your grandma, too). When Alexander III died, his son continued the tradition and commissioned the pricey trinkets for his mother and his wife.

12. For Your Pyromaniac Friend: Fire

It’s going to present a bit of a wrapping challenge, but it will all be worth it when you see your M-80-obsessed friend light up like the Fourth of July sky. But maybe don’t steal it like Prometheus did. The way the story goes, Zeus was hoarding fire for god-use only. Since Prometheus created humans out of clay, he was pretty annoyed that Zeus was being so stingy. He stole fire from the hearth of Zeus and gave it to his little clay people, then was immediately and severely punished for his good deed: Zeus had him chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten from his body by a giant eagle. The organ grew back overnight, so Prometheus suffered the same fate day after day. Just a little something to consider before you give the gift of fire.

13. For That Cousin on Your Dad's Side: An Eagle Made of Beer Can Tabs

It’s thrifty; it’s recycled; it’s a tribute to the United States of America. Your cousin will love it so much, you might even get a PBR and some pork rinds out of the deal. Gerald Ford received just such a gift from a Kentucky Cub Scout group while he was in office. The eagle, made to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976, was part of a Presidential Gift exhibit that traveled the presidential library circuit a few years back.

14. For Your Friend Who Lives for Trips to IKEA: A Carpet With Cleopatra Inside

It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind gift: an old, priceless carpet containing an Egyptian queen. Cleopatra needed an audience with Julius Caesar. The only way she could get one, though, was to sneak one. She had her servant roll her up in a carpet - though some historians believe it may have been bed coverings - and deliver her personally to Caesar. It worked: Cleo got her audience with Caesar, received his support in her battle for the Egyptian throne, and eventually gave him a son. You don’t have to go that far, though. The carpet will do.

15. For Your Friend Who Really Loves Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like, Really Loves. As in, Maybe You Should Consider Calling the Police: A Book Made out of Human Skin—Possibly Your Own

To appease your possibly blood-thirsty friend, try a gift like the one highwayman James Allen gave to the man who finally brought him down. Back in the early 1830s, Allen indiscriminately robbed dozens of people, and was caught only when a man named John Fenno stood up to him and refused to hand over his possessions. When Allen tried to shoot him, the bullet bounced off of Fenno’s belt buckle and Fenno was able to catch his would-be robber. Convicted to 20 years in prison, Allen died after just a few years. Before his death, though, he wrote a full confession of all of his crimes. The day he died in 1837, enough skin was taken from his back to bind a book. It was immediately sent to a bookbinder, who dyed the skin grey and then abided by Allen's twisted request to bind the confession in his own skin. It was then given to John Fenno, as Allen had specified.

You can read it if you want, though I’m not sure you’re getting the full effect if you’re not holding a book made of human skin.

And Possibly the Worst Gift of All-Time...

A Video Featuring Women Biting the Heads Off Snakes and Soldiers Killing Puppies

Do you have a friend who liked to set fire to bugs with a magnifying glass when he was little? Does he now maintain a firm grip on a small country? This gift might be just the ticket. Back in December of 1983, Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein as part of President Reagan’s Middle East Envoy. At the end of the meeting, Saddam slipped Rumsfeld a videotape. When Rumsfeld popped the tape in, perhaps hoping it was an advance screening of Footloose, he was stunned: the tape contained three minutes of female Syrian soldiers biting the heads off of snakes, then roasting them and eating them. In the same video, a male soldier holds down a live puppy and stabs it over and over, then tosses the lifeless body aside. The "gift" can be seen online - it’s obviously very graphic, and I won’t watch it, so click at your own risk.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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December 14, 2013 - 10:30am
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