The Evolution of Christmas: Photographs of Christmas Trees, 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The first two entries in this series looked at the evolution of the Christmas tree from a rare phenomenon in the 1840s to a growing tradition by the 1870s, including in frontier Los Angeles.

Both posts noted that Christmas trees were placed on tables, with candles often used to illuminate them (meaning a bucket of water had to be handy in case of fire, especially when homes were often wood-frame and rooms could have oilcloth ceilings!) and gifts placed on the table top.  Documentation of trees in those periods was generally through prints in books and magazines.

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The three stereographic photographs highlighted here all came from the B.W. Kilburn Company, of Littleton, New Hampshire, headed by Benjamin W. Kilburn (1827-1909), a major figure in American photography from 1865 until his death.  Note that the scenery is largely the same in the photos, including the tree, some of the furniture, wallpaper and other elements.

By the end of the 19th century, though, more changes were afoot.  For one, trees started to be set on the floors of houses and other buildings and were taller.  Another was that commercial photography more frequently featured images of trees, especially in series of photos taken and sold for the holidays.

This post highlights several images from the Homestead’s collection that depict trees as part of Christmas scenes in stereoscopic photographs.

The first is an interesting one that shows Santa Claus entering a house through a more obvious, if not as traditional, means; that is, through a window.  Note, however, that a white wood side chair happened to be handy to assist St. Nick in clambering down, with toys pouring out from his sack, from the open window.  Next to him is part of a Christmas tree standing on the floor and a close look shows that there aren’t any candles hanging from the branches.  There are, however, plenty of decorations, including glass and paper garlands, as well as hanging glass and other ornaments.

SV 11624 Reindeer With Toys Are On The Way 2010.359.1.1
This is the only of the three images to show nearly the entire Christmas tree and has the added advantage of showing Santa using the relatively new communication device of the telephone to get news that reindeer were on the way with toys (though this leads to the question of how he wound up in the house waiting for more gifts?)

Another photo from the same series depicts Santa making use of the telephone, in an image titled “Reindeer With Toys Are On The Way.”  Why Santa would be waiting for the reindeer and sleigh when he is already in a home with several gifts, such as a doll’s carriage and some drums, is an obvious question, but there must’ve been an answer by someone somewhere!

The scene appears to be the same as the photo above, with respect to the drapery fabric pattern and that of the fine upholstered armchair and the tree looks to be identical, but, of course, there is a phone on the wall and the hanging picture behind Santa looks to be larger.   In any case, in this one we get a fuller view of the impressively expansive Christmas tree, which is fully loaded with a great deal of decoration.   Note the very large hanging decorations that might be dolls or angels, though there are others that are dolls, horses, flowers and stars.

SV 11542 God Bless Father God Bless Mother God Bless Santa Claus
Out went Santa, in came a quintet of adorable girls in prayer kneeling next to a bed, but the tree, doll’s carriage, table, and side chair are the same as in the above views.

The same scene is used for another set of images involving children, most notably one called “God Bless Father, God Bless Mother, God Bless Santa Claus,” and which shows a quintet of girls dressed in white bedclothes kneeling in prayer by a bed with some nicely carved work on the headboard and footboard.

Note, though, that the carpet, window drapery, side table, side chair and doll’s carriage are the same as in the other two images, and tree, although in partial view, looks to be identical to the one in the others, as well.

The trio of images were taken by Benjamin W. Kilburn, was was born at Littleton, New Hampshire, a town at the west edge of the picturesque White Mountain range and near the famed Mt. Washington, in 1827.  His father managed an iron foundry and this was the first career Kilburn embarked upon.  He married and had a family and enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.  At the end of the conflict, he and his brother Edward formed a publishing company in their hometown for stereoscopic photographs taken mainly by Edward, though Benjamin gradually assumed more responsibility for taking views.

The business grew quickly and Kilburn stereoviews were sold widely, including internationally.  Edward retired after about a decade and the firm was later renamed B.W. Kilburn Company.  Benjamin’s techniques were much admired and he became something of an early photojournalist in documenting events like presidential inaugurations, wars, natural disasters and others.

Kilburn acquired the inventory of competitors and, at the peak of his enterprise, manufactured 600,000 stereoscopic photos a year and employed over 100 workers at his Littleton factory.  He suffered a debilitating stroke that left him disabled until his death in 1909.  Shortly afterward, the business closed and the inventory was sold to competitors.

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