by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the Christmas holiday became the most celebrated and popular of the year in America, which experienced enormous population and economic growth, with more disposable income for more people, by the onset of the 20th century, the Christmas card industry experienced a transformative expansion, as well. Generally, the holiday also became more secularized and commercialized with less emphasis than in the past on the religious element and more toward such aspects of decorating and gift-giving and this, too, tends to be reflected in the themes of cards.
Cheaper paper and production costs also drove the price down and some of the more artistic and expensive examples from the Victorian era, as noted in the post on 19th century Christmas cards last week, also meant that the successors were of a different quality, though the expression of holiday wishes, of course, wasn’t any less heartfelt. If anything, the less formal nature of cards during early 1900s allowed for more humor (or more attempts at) and light-hearted themes and sentiments became more commonplace.
There was also a growing number of personalized cards, in which an individual or a family would have cards made with their names and addresses or city of residence, and some of these might have a poem or a family photo included. Another category of card that became more established was what might be called institutional, meaning used for some form of commercial advertising, whether it involve companies sending them out to customers or entities like private schools conveying season’s greetings to parents of students.
Here in sunny southern California, there were also localized cards. These invariably played up our usually fabulous winter weather and often included images of palm trees or oranges to highlight the local climate. Often there were playful messages about the sunshine and warmth and not-so-subtle jibes to those who had to live in colder climes. Some of the banter included the very common refrain of “I’ll pick oranges for you while you throw snowballs for me.”
Sadly, one pernicious aspect that did not change from the previous century to the new one was the continued popularity of cards that used offensive racial caricatures of blacks, these also being extraordinarily crude attempts at humor for a dominant majority in American society that felt completely free to send such cards to friends and family without, evidently, any regard for the feelings of those being stereotyped. There was also a growing fascination with exotica and even cards that were not necessarily overtly racist were definitely racial in nature, with some examples dealing with Asians.
The Homestead’s collection of Christmas cards contains, not surprisingly given how many more were produced broadly, an interesting cross-section during the first three decades of the twentieth century. One of the more colorful and dramatic is one from the 1920s created especially for children to send to their mother and the image shows a beautiful black-haired mother with a massively flowing Red dress, with trimmed cuffs and green piping holding what appears to be a garnished turkey on a platter, while her son and daughter are gathered around her.
The message reads,
There’s always just one Mother,
No one can take her place,
In her there lies the beauty
Of love and truth and grace;
She’s just a lovely woman
But sill seems so divine;
None is just like Mother
Thanks God that she is mine.
The sender, Dick, has a two part message for his mother about being home for the holidays and, after saying he’d send her details, he added a second part with that information. He also enclosed a small portrait of himself, as well.
A card with a religious theme, or at least partly, shows the Magi pointing to the Star of Bethlehem. The message, though looks to be a mixture of faith and modern secular celebrations, as it reads:
There’s a Long, Long Trail
to the Land O’ Dreams,
tenderest Memories are.
And the friends of old
grow clearer et,
In the light
of the Christmas Star!
More straightforward are a couple of smaller cards, looking to be earlier in the century, and which have bucolic country winter landscapes, one with a trio of rabbits in the foreground and a hamlet with perhaps fifteen or so houses and a church in the distance and the other showing what look like early 19th century folk near a two-story house. A 1920s example of a humorous card shows a fellow with his empty pants pockets pulled out and the message “Gee Whiz! I like you so much I / have squandered my last / dime on you / Merry Christmas.”
A quartet of institutional cards includes a pair of unused ones, probably from the 1910s, that weren’t even folded, but came to the museum in their original flat condition as printed. They are British, as the artist for one was the well-known Donald McGill and his depiction was of several packs of Wild Woodbine Cigarettes, manufactured by W.D. and H. O. Mills, though the owner in the teens was the Imperial Tobacco Company, which included Mills family members as directors. A message on the cover reads “With heartiest Christmas Greetings/ I send these smokes you see / So if it isn’t too much ‘fag’ [a “fag” being British slang for a cigarette] / Just send a line to me!” while one on the inside says “Here’s all the best of luck to you / And all the best the whole year through.”
The other card, presumably also drawn by McGill, shows Flor Fina cigars, still made in the Dominican Republic, and its front cover message is “Accept this Christmas Gift from me / A Greeting from a friend / And my your heart be ever light / In Smoke your troubles end.” Closer to home is one issued in 1926 from the Los Angeles Soap Company, a company founded in the 1860s by German immigrant John Forthmann. Long known for its “White King” brand, the company existed for almost 130 years and Forthmann’s impressive 1882 residence still survives as USC Community House. The front side of the card has an image of poinsettia flowers and boughs of holly in a bowl next to a candle, while the reverse advertises “Mission Bell Soap / For the Complexion” and has a calendar for 1927.
The last of the institutional cards came from Major Robert Gibbs, who ran the Page Military Academy in Los Angeles, and his wife, was was sent in 1927 to the mother of a young elementary-age student. The message reads “Never a Christmas Morning, Never the Old Year Ends, But Somebody Thinks of Somebody / Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends” and a woodcut-like drawing shows a pair of musicians and a singer under a streetlamp in a village. Incidentally, Thomas W. Temple II, once his family’s first wells came in at the Montebello Oil Field in 1917 was sent to Page for a short period.
A pair of personalized Christmas cards includes one from the prominent Freeman family of Pasadena. While the front cover is plain with just the greeting of “With the Warmest Wishes / of the House of Freeman” and “Christmas, 1928 / Pasadena, California” on it, the inside has a poetic message:
Just a line of salutation,
Just a line of Christmas cheer,
But this line’s manipulation
Took our household many a year.
Somewhat wavy, you are thinking,
Yet’s life’s drawing still is true;
Youth extending, parents shrinking—
‘Tis our Freeman wave to you.
There is also a photo of the family, including Scottish-born Robert, who was for almost thirty years the pastor at the city’s Presbyterian Church and who was a president of the Board of Trustees of Occidental College, his wife Margery, who taught at that institution for many years, and their three sons and two daughters.
The second card was sent in 1910 from Reynold Blight and his wife and it also has a religious connection, though not explicit on the card, which lacks any imagery and has an embossed golden “B” at the lower right, the couple’s address in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, and a message of “To Greet You Right Heartily / and wish you the / Compliments of the Season.” Blight, a native of England, was an accountant, the minister of the Los Angeles Fellowship in 1910 and the later the Church of the People, an educator, involved in many civic organizations including the city school board and library commission, a state franchise tax board commissioner, and a frequent writer on religious and secular subjects as well as editor of three magazines.
As to the local cards mentioned above, a pair of these, likely from the 1910s, are in bright orange, with one showing what look like tall eucalyptus trees amid flowering plants and the message of “With California’s merriest and happiest Christmas greeting to you.” The other has ripe oranges on the branches of a tree and its salutation reads “A Merry Christmas / From this golden land / of ours to send / The Season’s Greetings / to a golden friend.”
As to the cards with racial elements, one from 1906 shows a Japanese woman in traditional clothing playing a koto, a mainstay of traditional Japanese music. At the bottom is printed “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” while a cut from the woman’s eyes downward opens to a calendar for the following year with pages for each month. The other four, however, are examples of unrepentant racist caricatures of blacks with messages of so-called “negro dialect.” The images include a mammy, a hobo, a mail carrier and a little girl, all with the blackest of skins and grossly exaggerated lips. All appear to be from the 1920s, with one hiding its racism behind a jolly front cover scene of a jolly Santa in his sleigh flying over a quaint snow-covered village. When the “Moto-Folder,” patented in December 1927, is opened, the mailman moves from left to right in the interior to approach a mailbox—mechanically clever but supremely degrading.
These cards provide an indication of the growing diversity of Christmas cards during the first thirty years or so of the Twentieth century, in format, size, imagery, and in other ways. While there were stylistic changes with respect to messages, customization for the sender, and so on, one unfortunate aspect that remained from before 1900 was the common availability of cards that utilized racist depictions of blacks. Next week, we’ll conclude this series by looking at some other holiday cards, including the use during this same era of Christmas postcards and share some examples of season’s greetings sent by and to the Temple family.