by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While Christmas cards have been in use for nearly 180 years, even as they have evolved significantly, the holiday postcard had a relatively short span of popularity during the first few decades of the 20th century. This is true as well for its cousin, the real photo postcard, which had widespread use during those years and, in both cases, they were in decline by the 1930s.
It is understandable why they became so commonplace–they were cheaper and there was the ease and convenience of briefly filling out the reverse, applying a one-cent stamp, and popping these in the mail. Notably, a Smithsonian Magazine article pointed out that, in 1915, the pathway to the future of the Christmas card was laid out by a Kansas City postcard manufacturer, Joyce Hall, who was joined by his brothers, Rollie and William, in establishing a standard template of a single-fold card six inches tall and four inches wide fitting snugly in an envelope.
The Hall Brothers firm learned that “people didn’t have enough room to write everything they wanted to say on a postcard, but they didn’t want to write a whole letter,” so the new format fit the bill quite successfully. In 1925, the company changed its name to Hallmark and it soon became a dominant force in the burgeoning greeting card industry, with the holiday season especially important and lucrative. Soon, the use of the Christmas postcard dissipated in favor of the “book” form the Halls and others pushed to prominence.
The Homestead’s artifact collection includes some interesting examples of the Christmas postcard, including the ones highlighted in this post. General examples include a couple that were more 19th century in their imagery, with one, sent in 1909, showing a collie in an oval frame with some sprigs of holly and berries below him and the greeting of “May You Have a Merry Christmas,” while another, mailed seven years later, shows a young boy eating a holiday meal, with what looks like a turkey leg at his mouth, and the salutation of “A Joyous Christmas” and the quote of “Christmas comes but once a year.”
Others, however, reflect the growing trend toward a more cheery, lively style with the standarized red-garbed Santa Claus (in the Victorian era, he might have sported blue, white, brown or green cloats and caps) and other design ideas that took root and held right on up to our own time. One card from the collection was mailed in 1914 and shows Santa with a ladder balanced on his left shoulder (no reindeer to land him on the roof, evidently) and carrying what looks like a satchel, while there is a handsome neoclasical entry to a house at the top. The message reads “When you count up / your red-letter days / may this Christmas / be the brightest / of them all.”
Another pair are from 1928 and one shows a cute littel tyke dressed all in sky blue clutching a raft of presents under both arms with the greeting of “Hello, Merry Christmas” and the message of “Arms full of bundles / Hearts full of cheer, / Folks are happy / Cause Christmas is here.” The others shows a trio of anxious young siblings huddled in bed with a message that uses pictures for some of the words, including a Santa, doll, train, horn, drum, a bee, a boy, a mouse and another Santa. There is one card from 1909 that shows that Santa Claus was more than willing to try new transportation technology, jettisoning the reindeer and sleight for a dirigible labeled that “Santa Claus Special.”
Then, there are the localized cards with a representative quartet. One has the greeting of “The Seasons Greetings from California” and reproduces postcard labeled “Orange Grove near Foothills” and showing a scene that could well be from the northern San Gabriel Valley with seemingly limitless rows of neatly organized trees and the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. This card was sent in 1922 from Los Angeles to New Hampshire where, of course, the climate was considerably less balmy and that may well have been the point. Another example, probably from the prior decade, shows the well-known south elevation of the Mission San Gabriel’s stone church and distinctive belfry with a sprig of holly and berries at the right, so even a bit of a nod to history, however romanticized, could be a theme for holiday greetings.
A couple of Christmas postcards send greetings from Los Angeles, with one from 1910, having, strangely, what looks like wilted poinsettia flowers, perhaps that being the point in reference to the warmer winters in the Angel City, and a “Greetings from Los Angeles” salutation. A neat added feature to this card is the quite small “The Days of 1911” calendar pasted at the lower right. Notably, the inscription takes up the entire reverse, so the card was apparently put in an envelope and mailed (which, of course, defeats the purpose for the postcard!) The sender Flora Pomeroy asked “Mrs. Schwab” if “you are enjoying the eastern Christmas and holidays” and added that “we have had no frost and our Poinsettias are looking fine,” so there was definitely a good-natured jab about the great difference in climate between Flora in sunny southern California and wherever “Mrs. Schwab” was living.
The other postcard was printed specifically for the Los Angeles County Medical Association and its “Christmas Jinks,” a term used frequently during the period for a jolly program of “hijinks,” held on 18 December 1913 at Hamburger’s Cafe, a popular restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported that the event would be “spicy but not unsavory” and include the officer election for the coming year and a business meeting, comprising about an hour and a quarter, before “the dinner and the fun will commence.”
There was a mystery guest speaker in the form of “a famous Austrian savant,” and one wonders if there was an impostor Sigmund Freud in the offing. In any case, it was noted that members of the association were warned “that their names will be better protected if they appear at the festivities than if they stay away” and that there would “something doing every minute.” Attendees were given free reign as far as dress, except for new members and past presidents, who were expected to come in evening dress or be barred from entering the restaurant and attending.
As for the card, there was a partial printed message on the reverse reading “Dear Friend: / After consulting with my colleagues concerning / your care, at our annual meeting, I have decided to / prescribe for you as follow:—” and, presumably, a comic prescription was to be added. At the bottom was space for a signature and the postscript query of “When are you coming to Southern California?” On the front is a birds-eye rendering of downtown Los Angeles looking east from the top of the Angels Flight funicular railway atop Bunker Hill and a comic poem by “F.W.W.”:
When I came up town on the bus
The porter called “Loss Anjy-lus”
But others—when I talked with these—
Pronounced it thus: “Loss Anjy-lese!”
A few days since a bright young miss
Surprised me with “Las Anjy-lis!”
But, ‘mongst the cultured, one soon sees
The real thing is “Lows Ankylese!”
This sampling of Christmas postcards gives a range of examples from the first decade of the 20th century through the end of the Roaring Twenties, encompassing varying designs and themes, including localized cards highlighting regional history, climate and even the different ways to pronounce the name of Los Angeles.
Next week, we’ll conclude this series of posts on Christmas cards by looking at examples sent by and to the Temple family during the 1920s, so check back next Wednesday for that. Meanwhile, best wishes for the Christmas holiday, however that can be celebrated during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.