In "The Gift of the Magi," what was Jim's job before that caused the name Dillingham to get "flung to the breeze"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The pertinent passage reads:

Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.” The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D.

Jim did not necessarily have a different job or a different employer. Chances are that there was an economic recession and his original employer cut salaries. Jim was feeling on his way up when he put the name Dillingham on his business card, but the cutback was a psychological letdown. Jim couldn't go job-hunting; he had to take what he could get and hope there would be a turnaround. Recessions were cyclical then as now. Jim might have had new cards printed, but he simply couldn't afford to pay for such luxuries. So the middle name Dillingham remained on the fading card attached to the electric button, and it became a sort of mockery, both because of the swanky name and because the card was deteriorating and assuming the general shabbiness of the building.

The name Dillingham suggests that Jim came from a higher class than he belonged to now. It sounds like a rich family's name. That would explain how and why he inherited an expensive gold watch from his grandfather and his father but finally had to sell it to raise a little money. There is a close connection between the Dillingham and the gold watch. It was a more painful sacrifice for Jim to sell his watch because it was his last remaining tie to the upper-middle class world. One of the reasons Della admires her husband so much is that he comes from a higher social class. In fact, O. Henry shows her lower class in a bit of her dialogue.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?”

Somehow we know that her husband would never say "ain't."

O. Henry had a sharp eye for little things like a faded business card bearing a pretentious name. That was one of the things that made him such a good writer. He had undoubtedly seen cards like that in vestibules like that, and he had probably lived in places like that in New York himself. He wrote for a mass urban audience, the majority of whom were hard up and could only afford a nickel for a newspaper, which they would search for food-bargain ads and then use the pages for food wrappers, garbage wrappers, and more personal needs. They would have understood the Dillingham Youngs perfectly because they shared their privations and cares. There was no security in those horse-and-buggy days. If the breadwinner lost his job, the whole family could find themselves out on the street. O. Henry paints a picture of hard times in "The Gift of the Magi," "The Last Leaf," "The Furnished Room," "The Cop and the Anthem," and in other famous short stories.