“Christmas Draweth Nigh When . . .”: “Life” Magazine, 13 December 1883

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is the third early issue of Life, a magazine that was published from 1883 to 1972, though it changed substantially in content and style over the decades.  Two previous posts this month highlighted issues from 1887 and 1897 and this one is from the 13 December 1883 number, coming at the end of its first year of publication.

John Ames Mitchell was an illustrator who invested his $10,000 inheritance in the formation of the magazine and became its publisher.  He owned a three-quarter stake in the enterprise while Andrew Miller, who owned the remaining quarter interest, served as secretary and treasurer.

The masthead was Mitchell’s creation and it was his idea to place the concepts of society, literature, politics and drama in vignettes at the left margin of the front page.  There was a significant emphasis paid in the magazine to humor, in addition to short stories, poetry, columns on books and the theater, and current events, among others.  The magazine also featured interesting cartoons and drawings, including a vignette on the first page of a knight on horseback carrying a shield with “LIFE” on it while he aimed his lance at a fleeing devil.


One of the poems in the issue was by a largely known 24-year old, whose day job was as a reporter for a Cincinnati newspaper.  Born in Massachusetts and a classmate of Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard University, though he dropped out his senior year, Charles Fletcher Lummis worked as a printer during college and self-published his first book, Birch Bark Poems.  The volume sold a respectable 14,000 copies over a few years after its 1879 publication and earned its author some renown.

Lummis’ contribution to the magazine, one of several over the years, was a work of verse called “The Book of Books.”  The poem was actually about a woman and began with a quote from Irish poet Thomas Moore: “My only books were a woman’s looks.”  Here’s a sample of Lummis’ poem:

Sweet girl, whose look engages

More studious regard

Than all the printed pages

Of novelist or bard—


Their strained effects unheeding

In search of wisdom true,

I find life’s choicest reading

Fresh every day in you.


In “flexible cloth covers”

This book of books is “bound”—

To facinate all lovers,

All critics to confound.


Those eyes a whole love-story

A tangled plot the hair—

That face—a limner’s glory—

The frontispiece most fair.


Ah, let me be the chap-ter

Both name and service gage—

That is, in language apter,

Accept a “title page.”


May fortune fair attend a

Provision thus begun,

And little corrigenda

Complete my “Volume One.”

A “limner” was a painter of portraits and a “corrigenda” is a published list of errors added to a book after the mistakes were found once the work was printed.  Within months of the publication of his poem in Life, Lummis applied for and was offered a job with the relatively new Los Angeles Times.


Rather than take a train across the country, Lummis, an extravagant eccentric, decided to walk from Ohio to Los Angeles, leaving in September 1884 and taking 143 days to make the 2,200-mile jaunt.  He sent dispatches by telegraph of his trip and these made him a household name in the City of Angels before he arrived.

Lummis went on to work for several years with the Times; spent time in New Mexico recovering from stress-induced paralysis which led him to deepen his growing interest in the native peoples of the Southwest; edited the influential Land of Sunshine, later known as Out West; served as Los Angeles City Librarian; was involved with the Landmark Club of Southern California and the Sequoya League (which worked with native Indian causes); and founded the Southwest Museum.

He also continued to write poetry and other works and lived in the unique El Alisal, a stone home he built himself along the Arroyo Seco northeast of Los Angeles and near the Southwest Museum and which is a City of Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark.  Lummis died in 1928 of brain cancer at the age of 69, one of Los Angeles’ most colorful and unusual characters.


Although it was just a dozen days until Christmas, there isn’t much holiday content in the issue.  There is a centerfold drawing by Edward W. Kemble (1861-1933), a native of Sacramento who had the distinction of illustrating the first edition of Mark Twain’s masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published in England at the end of 1884 and in America a couple of months later.

Kemble was a political cartoonist for a New York newspaper when he was asked to contribute drawings to Life in its early years.  He continued book illustrating as well as work for such popular magazines as Collier’sHarper’s WeeklyJudge, and Leslie’s Weekly.  He was also known for his racist caricatures of blacks over the course of a long career.

Kemble was only twenty-two when he drew “Just Before Christmas” for this issue of Life and it has the statement “Christmas draweth nigh when . . .” and then several vignettes explain such aspects as “the turkey is well fed” as a farmer stuffs the animal with corn in preparation for the slaughter; “the rich uncle hunteth for a Xmas tree” showing a miserly man choosing a particularly underwhelming pine; “the youngster peereth up the chimney” in anxious anticipation of Santa Claus; and others.


The main vignette, however, is of a Puritan-era boar hunt showing an enraged animal pierced with lances trampling upon a fallen hunter.  Kemble’s text reads “In ye goode old days when ye festive boar-hunt (vulgarly called pig-sticking) took place, it was a sign that Christmas drew nigh, but, oft times ye boar tooke it into his head to bunt ye man which wsa akward for ye man.”

Not leaving him out of the humor, Kemble depicted himself at the lower right, hunched over an easel and furiously drawing with a caption of “the artist worketh hard.”

The only other major reference to the holidays in the issue is in the advertisement section at the rear of the publication, as R.H. Macy and Company took out an ad announcing that, from 26 November on, the famed department store “will inaugurate their regular holiday opening of dolls, toys, and fancy goods.”


1883 was said to be year that “the largest and most elegant stock we have ever exhibited” was to be found in the store.  Because Macy’s bought direct from manufacturers, “we are enabled to offer specially low prices to those looking for Christmas gifts” and this solidified “our reputation for being the leading house in Akerica in Holiday Goods of every description” for a quarter century.

This trilogy of issues of Life between its founding year and the end of the 19th century gives us a glimpse both into how the magazine presented general content to its readers as well as recognizing the Christmas season.  In a few days, we’ll look at another popular magazine mentioned in this post, Judge, and its particularly striking issue of 16 December 1922.

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