The Evolution of Christmas: Christmas Cards from the Homestead’s Collection, 1870-1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As with so much of American life during the last decades of the 19th century, the celebration of Christmas transformed dramatically. For much of the early history of the country, the holiday paled in comparison, when it came to celebration, to New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July, though some marked change was underway by the 1840s with the gradually growing use of Christmas trees, gift-giving, and the sending of Christmas cards. In pre-American California, it was primarily a religious holiday focused, obviously, on the seeking of lodging by Joseph and Mary for the birth of the Christ child and the visitation by the Magi, though, after the American seizure of the Mexican department, there was a slow introduction to celebrations from outside sources and influences.


In 1843, the year when Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published, Henry Cole, founder of the famed Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hit upon a scheme for replying to the numerous letters he received from friends. Taking advantage of changes to the postal system and the penny stamp, which he helped establish (the half-penny stamp came in 1870), Cole asked an artist friend, John C. Horsley, to provide an illustration, showing a family celebrating the holiday with images of people assisting the poor, and had a thousand cards printed—about 20 survive. Room was left for the inscription of the names of the recipients and sender and there was the greeting of “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” Despite some disapproval over Horsley depicting children drinking what looked to be wine with the adults, Cole’s idea was quickly emulated by some contemporaries, though it took a few decades for its mass use.

A Prussian immigrant and printer and lithographer, Louis Prang, is generally credited for being the first to manufacture a Christmas card in the United States, though you wouldn’t have known it from the image of a flower, accompanied by a simply greeting of “Merry Christmas.” Prang, however, issued beautiful representations of nature scenes and animals reflective of the season, even if his cards did not have the trappings more Americans were surrounding themselves with during the holidays, such as trees, garlands, boughs of holly and the like. Some cards even had strange novelty subjects, like armies of ants in battle or human-like holiday puddings, while others openly traded on racist imagery, largely caricatures of blacks, that can still shock us now. Still, Prang and others were instrumental in popularizing the Christmas card in America and the art involved and the quality of the materials included prize contests with cash awards to those submitting the best design ideas. Some Americans collected cards and had holiday-themed albums in which to paste their objects, while each year’s offerings were reviewed in the nation’s media, principally newspapers and magazines.


The growth of the Christmas card, especially in the final quarter of the century, coincided with a generally burgeoning American economy, more leisure time especially in a rapidly expanding middle class, and the enormous popularization of the holiday, which included, as another example, a growing portfolio and market for secular Christmas songs. Industrialization, involving mass-media printing and publishing and greatlyimproved supply chains, and commercialization, with marketing and public relations become more complex, widespread and pervasive throughout society, were instrumental in the developing of the holiday into the biggest of the year as Americans increasingly had more disposable income for such items as the Christmas card.

In the Homestead’s holdings of historic artifacts are a group of 19th century Christmas cards, including British and American examples, and, as noted above, none have much of the modern holiday imagery that we’re used to, though one is closer than the rest. Most emphasize flowers and landscapes, though there are some that are definitely more artistically endowed, and there are a couple that refer to race and racist caricature.


The earliest are examples from Great Britain, dating to about the 1870s, including a pair made by Marcus Ward and Company, a firm from Belfast, Northern Ireland and which had a London office and showroom. Among its main artists during the Seventies was Kate Greenaway, who may well have created the artwork for a pair of cards shown here, one of which depicts Red Riding Hood and a four-line bit of verse: “Little Red Riding Hood comes to spend / The Christmas days with her ancient friend, / For well she knows her presence will tend / To gladden her Granny’s Christmas,” while the other shows a dancing girl wearing a green dress and which has a stanza of a poem of “Christmas Greeting” from famed poet Alexander Pope: “May joy, or ease, or affluence, or content / And the calm conscience of a life well spent, / Calm every though, inspirit every grace, / Row in thy heart, and smile upon thy face.”

A larger format card of a bouquet of flowers with a Christmas poem was made by Raphael Tuck and Sons, which opened in London in 1866 as a picture and frame business, but, by the early Seventies, began manufacturing Christmas cards. The “A Happy Christmas Poem includes the lines, “The flowers which bloom thro’ summer hours / The wintry blasts but come to sever! / This CHRISTMAS day to thee I saw / The flowers may fade my friendship never.” A fourth card, with a textured border and an image of a wreathed landscape scene, also has remnants of pressed flowers at the bottom and a small inscription of “Papa Xmas/74” at the bottom, while on the reverse, is a message “To dear Alice, / from her / affectionate father, / F. Haywell / 25/12/74.” The card, however, does not have a manufacturer’s name or mark on it.


Of the American cards, a couple are also unattributed and appear to be from the 1880s, including one that has the message of “Wishing you a bright and happy Christmas” and which has a small bouquet of flowers. The other is a detailed winter landscape with a woman and daughter carrying baskets walking on a snow-covered road next to a river, with what looks to be an entrance to a home at the right and a group of tall trees, some small buildings and a church steeple in the background. The message simply reads “With Best Christmas Wishes.” On the back is some residue from the card being pasted into an album or book, while the name “Jennie Lamb” is inscribed in pencil.

A trio of cards from Prang demonstrate the high level of artistry he maintained in his Christmas card production. The smaller of the three, bearing a copyright date of 1880, has a winter scene of two children with sleds on a hill near a church, while boughs of holly and a wallpaper like design are present. There is a greeting of “A Merry Christmas!” and a four-line poem “The bells . . . the bells . . . the Christmas bells! / How merrily they ring, / As if they felt the joy they tell / To every human thing.” The harmonizing colors of gold and green with the splash of red from the holly berries provides a warm and colorful touch.


The other two cards are much larger in size with one showing two women greeting each other with a kiss and four others walk toward them amid a winter landscape that is actually largely devoid of detail, putting the emphasis on the sextet. On the reverse are boughs of holly and pine tree sprigs with a poem “Christmas Day” in two separated stanzas of six lines each by the well-known California poet Joaquin Miller—the last of these reads “A merry Christmas gathering / Through gleaming Fields of Falling snow, Beneath the boughs where birds shall sing / The holly leaves, the mistletoe / So may we meet when Time shall end / Beyond the Snow, now miss one Friend.” On the edges is residue from the card having been pasted down in an album or scrapbook.

 The most impressive of the Prang cards was imprinted on the back with “Prang’s American 2nd Prize Christmas Card by Alex Sandier” and “Judges in the Competition of 1880” with the signature of the three who chose the winners. The prize amount of $500 was also printed. There are three ink inscriptions, including “To Mrs. Jennie Owen Keim of Reading Pa;” “Yours Affectionately / W. Keim Randolph;” and “Presented in Washington D.C. with “Pastoral Days.”


The image is a phenomenal rendering of a young girl wearing a brown dress and a cape with a pink lining and white feather fringe. In her hair is a pink ribbon and bow, while she wears a large brooch. There is a very stylized landscape of a thin tree with branches that are not overfilled with leaves, but it is the frame surrounding the oval in which the girl is situated that is remarkable with its geometric figures, pine branches and other elements with a red border around it and a forest green margin that really stands out. Printed within two shields are “A Happy Christmas be yours!” and “All blessings attend you in The New Year!” Small wonder that cards like these were so collectible and were exemplars of popular art for the holidays.

We conclude with a pair of cards that had racial themes. One shows a white baby, wearing a fine dress with a blue ribbon crawling on a rug, while to the left is a black baby wearing a simple white outfit with the straps off the shoulders and holding a carrot in the left hand while the right is in a tub of vegetables and a mop and bucket are nearby, suggesting the latter’s mother was a servant to the former’s parents. There is the printed greeting of “A Merry Christmas” and the verse of “Joy now is found in every dwelling / And rich and poor find new delight; / The humbled breast with glee is swelling, / The riches bosom feels more bright.” The insinuation, of course, is that the poor black child feels just as filled with the holiday spirit as the wealthy white baby—regardless of how, say, the adults might feel.


The second card dispenses entirely with the pretense of joy and glee among children and shows a terribly offensive caricature of a black man wearing fine clothing, including patterned trousers, a white vest with a watch chain prominently placed, a red bow tie, a large turned-up collar, a long blue coat lined in gold and a gold hat, which he is tipping. In his left hand appears to be an embroidered pillow with outlines of plants in the background. The message reads “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” while an pencil inscription on the reverse reads “Christmas 1885.” Such vile depictions of blacks were commonplace and this card also has adhesive residue from an album or scrapbook.

Also shown here are the detached boards or covers, though no pages, for a Christmas card album or scrapbook. Embossed on the back cover is the patent date of March 1876, while the front has badly worn but remarkable raised images of a quartet of Santa Clauses. These are the common depictions of St. Nick as a little person and thin enough to, as the top right example shows, fit snugly down the chimney of a house with his sack of toys on this back. At the top left, Santa displays his toy-making skills with a doll, while the version at the center shows him filling a stocking hung from the branches of a tree that fills much of the cover. Finally, at the bottom left, Sana reclines on the ground enjoying a long-stem pipe, evidently having concluded his arduous holiday labors.


This sample of late 19th century Christmas cards gives, hopefully, a decent idea of the variety of British and American examples available to consumers and includes graphic images and themes that were a far cry from the examples that became standardized later and which largely remain today.

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