Life in Late Victorian America: The Christmas Number of “Life” Magazine, 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The magazine Life was a staple for many Americans from 1936 when publisher Henry Luce, who founded the influential and popular Time magazine in the early 1920s, bought the struggling weekly for $92,000 until the mid-1960s when circulation declined rapidly as nation underwent dramatic changes amid a massive generational shift.

Life, however, debuted on 4 January 1883 as a general interest publication launched by John Ames Mitchell and Andrew Miller with a decided emphasis on humor, including through its many cartoons and drawings.  It became a noted success and featured such artists as Charles Dana Gibson, whose Gibson Girl was enormously popular in the first years of the 20th century, and writers like James Whitcomb Riley, who was widely known as a poet and writer.


Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is the Christmas number of Life in 1897 as the Victorian era was coming to an end.  There is the usual collection  of short stories, poems, humor, and cartoons and drawings, with the holiday taking an obvious prominent place among the contents.

The cover illustration features a cherub at the wheel of a sleigh without any visible means of locomotion while a couple huddles in the seat at the back as the vehicle races down a snow-covered hillside with bare trees as part of the landscape.  There are many other seasonal cartoons and drawings, as well.


One, titled “How He Comes” shows four ways by which Santa Claus traveled, including the traditional reindeer-drawn sleigh slicing through the sky, but also with St. Nick sliding along electric power lines, walking with a large toy-filled sack on his back, and riding in what looks to be an early automobile.

Among the more whimsical drawings in the issue is “Christmas Eve in the Kitchen” depicting an invasion of mice having a party with feasting on cheese, oatmeal and vegetables, many wearing formal dress and dancing, and others enjoying a cigarette, cuddling in corners, young ones playing with toys, and a pair mocking a cat outside a window with a stunned look in its eyes.


A five-panel cartoon, “How Freddie Sampson Happened To Have Bears’ Meat For His Christmas Dinner” shows a hunter with his rifle trained on a rather hapless-looking bird.  A trio of bears, perhaps a mother and two cubs, however, sneak up on Sampson from behind and, as he is ready to fire, the larger bear slaps the hunter on the back.  While the blow sends Sampson tumbling it also causes the rifle to kick back into the bears rendering them senseless and allowing the hunter to claim a remarkable trifecta.

An extraordinary centerfold is called “Christmas Eve: The Voyage to New Amsterdam” and showing a 17th-century man and woman huddled together beneath a large mast post on a ship.  To the left is a figure bent over the side retching, while, in the cabin, a group of passengers raises tankards in celebration of the holiday.  The Dutch founded New Amsterdam, now New York City, in 1625.


Another holiday themed cartoon, “The Night Before Christmas,” depicts a little child staring shyly and hopefully at a statue of Santa Claus next to a store display window chock full of toys.  There is a quote beneath the title: “Oh, if he would only look this way!”

There are also several holiday poems, including one from literary editor and Harvard Lampoon founder Edward Sandford Martin, who had a remarkable half-century career with Life.  His poem, “Christmas,” begins with:

Though doubters doubt and scoffers scoff,

And peace on earth seems still far off;

Though learned doctors think they know

The gospel stories are not so;

Though greedy man is greedy still

And competition chokes goodwill,

While rich men sigh and poor men fret,

Dear me! we can’t spare Christmas yet!

Martin beseeches readers, cynics or believers, to remember “Glory to God: goodwill to men! / Come! Feel it, show it, give it, then!”  He then moves to a positive uplifting conclusion, exhorting:

Comes to us, Christmas, good old day,

Soften us, cheer us, say your say

To hearts which thrift, too eager, keeps

In bonds, while fellow-feeling sleeps.

Good Christmas, whom our children love,

We love you, too! Lift us above

Our cares, our fears, our small desires!

Open our hands and stir the fires

Of helpful fellowship within us,

And back to love and kindness win us!

On the more humorous side of verse is John Kendrick Bangs, a former Life staffer who then went to work for Harper Brothers on several of their magazines, while occasionally contributing to his former publication.


In this issue, he offered “The Book Counter at Bargaindale’s” which takes a comedic look at the holiday promotion of a book seller with a few stanzas highlighted here:

Hear ye, ye Christmas buyers all, before

You go to seek your Yule-tide gifts, O hear

The bargains at our wondrous Mammoth store

To fill the souls of all mankind with cheer.

We’ll see you Poe or Dickens by the pound;

We’ll sell you Bulwer-Lytton by the yard;

We’ve got ’em all in paper, or they’re bound.

Just come and see, or drop a postal card.

We’ve got a line of Kipling by the verse—

A hundred ripping stanzas for a dime;

And as for Alfred Austin, leave your purse;

We’re giving him away at any time.

So hear, ye Christmas buyers all, before

You go to seek your Yule-tide gifts take care

You read this advertisement of our store,

And note the wondrous bargains that are there.

Another enjoyable holiday poem is a rare contribution from a woman in the pages of the magazine.


Judith Spencer wrote “Christmas Eve: Then and Now” which contrasts the bustle of modern life with the slower pace of days of yore:

We hastened through the frosty air

With hearts aflame and cheeks aglow.

The Yule-log burned bright on the hearth—

We decked the halls with mistletoe.

While all around the message clear,

Without, within, we seemed to hear,

To sanctify the ending year—

“Lo, peace on earth, goodwill to men!”

While now we hasten to and fro

In cable cars and trolleys fleet.

Though still we cherish mistletoe—

No Yule-logs now, with furnace heat!

But shopping, presents—oh, dear me!

Such frenized, rushing mobs are we

That our refrain now, sure, should be—

“Mad rush on earth, queer gifts to men!”

Finally, there is a short little ditty by J.J. O’Connell called “Heresy”:

I hate to say it, just because

It sounds so mean and shocking,

But Nature beats you, Santa Claus,

At filling Madge’s stocking.

Martin also had an essay on Christmas that is worth noting.  He took the proverb, “The devil take the hindmost,” the latter word meaning “furthest back”, though Martin noted that “the devil is greedy and disposed toward perpetual encroachment, and if the hindmost are left to drop too easily into his clutches, he is forever reaching out to get the next to the hindmost also.”  This was a warning to anyone who thought they were not the “hindmost” because “there is no telling how soon he may gobble it up and overtake us, too.”


Then, there is the maxim, “peace and goodwill to all men,” with the writer cautioning that “peace is not to be had by letting things slide” and required constant vigilance.  As for goodwill, “it is a state of mind to be laboriously cultivated and kept alive by self-denial and good works.”  Joining the two sayings, Martin added “the eternal battle for the hindmost is the price of peace on earth” and implored readers to be ready to help neighbors in need by maintaining strong ideals and a sense of duty as well as charity and patience.

Goodwill is a means to maintain self-respect and he noted “that is why life is worth living, why education goes on, why good government is not despaired of, and why the fight with the devil for the hindmost is still vigorously kept up.”  With this in mind, Martin concluded by observing, “that, too, is the reason why Christmas finds us not quite yet ashamed to welcome it, nor wholly unqualified to share its joys.”


We’ll revisit this issue soon when embarked on a series of posts under the “Evolution of Christmas” series focusing on Christmas advertising, but we’ll close this one by noting that the use of crude caricactures of blacks for humor, as we’ve seen in recent posts in this blog, were so widespread and ingrained in American society.  This edition of Life includes a cartoon that is shown here as yet another example of how casually these degrading stereotypes were used for the amusement of the growing number of middle and upper class Americans who read magazines like this.


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