The Christmas Day Edition of “Harper’s Weekly,” 1858

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we approach our Yuletide season, it is fun and instructive to look back at how celebrated the holidays during the museum’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930, particularly by comparing and contrasting the evolution of Christmas through a variety of sources.

Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the 25 December 1858 edition of Harper’s Weekly.  Published by a quartet of brothers who ran a New York publishing house, the magazine was launched at the beginning of 1857, seven years after the popular Harper’s Monthly made it debut.

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The images here are from the 25 December 1858 edition of Harper’s Weekly in the Homestead’s holdings, including four prints by famed artist Winslow Homer and a fifth, shown above and unattributed, showing a pre-Thomas Nast (who popularized our modern version of Santa in the journal later) version of Santa Claus.

The Harper brothers, whose monthly magazine was more literary and geared to a wrll-to-do audience, were prompted to produce the weekly by the influence of other affordable weekly sheets like the Gleason/Ballou weekly, first appearing in 1851, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which appeared two years before theirs.  The timing was good as American literacy rates were rising rapidly and production costs dropped.

Harper’s Weekly, appealing to a much broader public than the monthly magazine, became very successful during the Civil War years as the combination of lengthy articles and the famed prints giving a visual perspective to the horrors of the conflict resonated with growing legions of subscribers and readers.  The Harper brothers became more pronounced in their pro-Union and anti-slavery sentiments as the war deepened.

At the same time, while the Leslie weekly was based more on news and, especially, sensationalism, the Harper counterpart maintained a literary approach in addition to a more even-keeled perspective on the events of the day.  Yet, after the end of the war, the editorial position of the publication leaned even more heavily Republican and, with famed Thomas Nast (1840-1902), a native of Bavaria, at the leading edge of political cartooning, the weekly had enormous influence in the successful campaigns of Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes.  He popularized the use of the donkey and elephant as symbols for the two main political parties, as well as Uncle Sam as a representation of the nation.

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Notably, Nast and political editor George Curtis, who frequently butted heads about the cartoonist’s approach, decided they could not support Republican candidate James G. Blaine in the 1884 election and switched to promote Democrat Grover Cleveland.  Many attributed the latter’s success to the work of Curtis and Nast, with the latter called “President maker.”

Nast, however, was also a key contributor to the development of images of the Christmas holiday, particularly that of Santa Claus.  The “Father of the American Cartoon” turned Father Christmas into the heavier, jollier, white-haired and bearded Santa that became ubiquitous as the holiday become more commercialized towards the last third of the nineteenth century and beyond.

His last cartoon for Harper’s Weekly was in 1886 and, notably, it was for Christmas.  He suffered financial reverses from being swindled in investments and a failed attempt to publish his own weekly newspaper and a change in cartooning style led to his fading from view.  He was appointed to be consul general in Ecuador by President Theodore Roosevelt, but died of yellow fever months after beginning his duties.

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Nast, however, did not join the staff of Harper’s Weekly until 1862 (having started with Leslie’s newspaper, though his drawings first appeared in Harper’s in 1859), so this Christmas 1858 edition features the work of other talented artists, especially Winslow Homer.

Born in Boston in 1836, Homer’s mother was a talented amateur artist and he was apprenticed to a lithographer at 19.  After Harper’s Weekly was launched, he was offered a staff position, but he chose to work as a free-lance artist.  He became widely known for his Civil War prints, including those in the Harper publication, but also studied oil painting during the war years and the moved to working with watercolors.

He continued his illustration work until the mid-1870s and then gave that up to pursue his burgeoning career as a painter and his much-admired technique and dramatic content, including seascapes in watercolors, made him one America’s leading artists until his death in 1910.

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Though it is not overtly stated in the text of the publication, Homer was the illustrator of a quartet of Christmas-themed prints in this issue.  A short statement about them included the note that:

In wishing our friends a merry Christmas, we present them with four pictures of the season—gathering evergreens in the forest for chapel or ball-room; the Christmas-tree with its wonderful foliage and fruit, more popular among children than the ripest peaches or ruddiest apples; the well-filled stocking at the foot of the bed; and, last of all, the Christmas out of doors, with poor shivering creatures cowering under the storm, many of them, perhaps, with “nowhere to go.”  Let all who proposed to spend a merry Christmas at home, with a Christmas-tree and sports of all kind, think of the poor people who on that Christmas night have no warm fire to sit by, and no home to call their own.

Additional information of interest is that “time was that it was unlawful to keep Christmas in New England” included legislation to ban its celebration, “so closely was the day connected in their minds with the rites of the Church.”  In the “middle” and southern states, however, “Christmas Day has always been a popular holiday.”

Statements about the popularity of the yule-log and that “the favorite dish for Christmas day in this part of the world seems to be—as on Thanksgiving Day in New England—roast turkey.”  Yet, this was denoted an irony given that turkeys, domesticated in Mexico and taken to England by the Spaniards, were brought by the Christmas-frowning Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620!

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The images done by Homer are rich in detail and starkly contrast the celebrations of the frolic of gathering evergreens (which, because of defoliation, were greatly reduced by the 1920s); the upper-class jollity of handing presents from the Christmas tree (rather than under it) in a finely-appointed parlor or drawing room; and the attentive and well-dressed parents leaving gifts for the stocking of their sweetly slumbering child in his amply outfitted bed; with the abject scene of “Christmas Out of Doors.”

In that print, depicting the intersection of Tremont Street and West Street across from the famed Common in Boston, the artist’s hometown, Homer shows, at the right, a pair of men, one whispering to the other to reach in his pocket, stopping to provide some alms to a basket-carrying woman holding a hand to her face.  To the left, a gentleman reaches in his deep overcoat pocket to pay a young boy with a basket on his left arm and a shovel resting against his body.  The man’s wife or daughter is turned back while entering their substantial residence (through a window it appears a couple is dancing in celebration) as if in sympathy for what is transpiring in the transaction.

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There is a fifth print in the publication marking the holiday season and it does not appear to have the initials or name of the artist.  Titled “Santa Claus Paying His Usual Christmas Visit to His Young Friends in the United States,” the fanciful image shows a St. Nick about as far removed from the Nast-inspired jolly, bearded, elderly Santa in his red suit fringed with white as you can get.

The Santa here is a smiling gent in a dark suit and cravat, white gloves, a fur cap, and extraordinarily stringy hair seated in a sleigh that includes a turkey as a passenger, while toys of all types cover the vehicle, which is pulled, oddly, by two straining young boys.  Several people trail the sleigh at the bottom and right, while a menagerie of strange figures, including bottles with legs and feet, a pig with shoes, a miniature lion and other whimsical creatures are present.

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Finally, a lengthy “My Christmas Song,” which is unattributed, offers an interesting contrast of religious and secular elements to the holiday, as this sample of verses abundantly shows:

Christ was born on  a Christmas morn

And this is a Christian town

There’s a fair array on bright Broadway

Of the walkers up and down

God save and bless the merry throng

Whose hearts are filled with Christmas song!

 

No friendly hand in this Christian land

Has lain its palm in thine

In a kindly way, on this Christmas day

Invited thee in to dine

Oh, beggar, beggar gaunt and gray,

Is this for thee no Christmas day?

 

Oh, gorgeous wine! its bubbles shine

Like rubies carelessly flung;

Each beaker brims with silent hymns

That make my heart grow young

Oh, stranger, thou art good and true—

Here will I live, and die with you!

 

Oh! false and vain are the hopes I gain

From the blushes of thy wine;

It brings from the dead the hours that fled

Can never again be mine,

Oh! weak, delusive, woeful dream

How dark it makes the future seem!

 

Tis good to dine with glorious wine

On merry Christmas day;

Tis very sad to be ill-clad

In winter on Broadway

So learn this lesson well, old man

Get rich as quickly as you can

 

Christ was born on a Christmas morn

And this is a Christmas day,

It is clear, and cold, and the year grows old,

Soon it will pass away.

The King is dead—Long live the King!—

This Christmas day the bells shall ring.

 

 

 

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