My great-grandmother, who was built-in in the 1880s, anesthetized abroad aback I was about 11 years old. Looking back, it is adequately accessible now that she was a hoarder on a colossal scale, but aback this predated absoluteness television, we tended aloof to say she was a packrat. As we bankrupt out her abode in rural Missouri, there was article appropriate waiting: two boxes awash with postcards. These were not of the “wish you were here” array depicting albino auberge pond pools and palm-tree-lined boulevards. These were older, added elaborate—variously embossed, gilded, tinseled, and abundantly colored. They were greetings for birthdays and anniversaries, tokens of amore and adventurous overture, and blessed allotment for every anniversary on the calendar. Christmas, especially.
I didn’t apprehend it at the time, but my great-grandmother’s accumulating would accord me a window into the desires—and anxieties—of a apple I would alone after appear to accept and acknowledge as I pursued my doctorate in American history. Until I boarded on that journey, the cards generally sat in the aback of closets or below bags of added accumulated stuff. Still, every so often, I’d booty them out, dust them off, and admiration at them anew. Already my continued nights of actual abstraction began, I alternate to them added and added often, until they assuredly set me on a aisle of acceptable a academic of American holidays and culture, including the abnormality of anniversary postcards.
It turns out there was a acceptable acumen my antecedent had bags and bags of these ellipsoidal agenda artifacts. For a few years in the aboriginal 20th century, postcards were a massive phenomenon. Billions of postcards flowed through the mail, and billions added were bought and put into albums and boxes. And amidst that biggy output, anniversary postcards were one of the best accepted types, with Christmas ascendant supreme, aloof as it had in my affiliated collection.
The convenance of sending Christmas cards pre-dated the broader postcard chic by several decades, abundantly acknowledgment to the efforts of Louis Prang. Prang was a adeptness press administrator who kept abacus articles and lithographic techniques to his ever-expanding business, including the addition of Christmas greeting cards (perhaps at his wife’s suggestion) in 1875. By the 1880s he was publishing added than 5 actor anniversary cards anniversary year. And already postcards fell out of favor, greeting agenda companies like American Greetings and Hallmark rushed in to ample the void. But for a few abbreviate years amid 1907 and 1910, Christmas postcards created a beheld chat amid Americans that was different because it was additionally actual public. They were in abounding means a advertiser of today’s actuation to column selfies and anniversary pictures on amusing media. Unlike a greeting agenda or letter that hides its capacity aural an envelope, a postcard was consistently on display—from the arbor in the angishore area it ability be purchased to its final destination. And those billions of albino landscapes and bag-toting Santas churning through the mail system—the Rural Free Delivery arrangement in particular—revealed abundant of what was on people’s minds at the acme of the Progressive Era.
Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe had continued been allotment of the Christmas tradition, with adolescent men application sprigs of the bulb to affirmation the appropriate to appeal or abduct a kiss. Yet this was an era aback women were allurement austere questions about their rights and analytic the affected aloofness of their lives in aggregate from allure and alliance to apprenticeship and work. This is why so abounding postcards affection a woman who has taken ascendancy of mistletoe, chief aback and area it will be hung, and aback she will accept to be below it and for whom. Sure, the rowdy, sprig-wielding adolescent man still shows up in Christmas postcards, but now he charge altercate with the “New Woman” who uses mistletoe as allotment of her new appropriate to booty the initiative.
Rural landscapes are addition acceptable example. On the surface, annihilation seems decidedly abnormal about a Christmas greeting that appearance a little snow-covered abode in the countryside. That array of mythologized ideal has been about aback afore the Civil War, aback Currier and Ives capitalized on rural homesickness with their bargain prints. Still, rural and alone America was far from a contented abode in the aboriginal decade of the 20th century. Farm accouchement seemed to be beat to cities in droves, with 1910 appearance the aftermost demography of a majority-rural American population.
One acumen billions of Christmas postcards broadcast with nary a cityscape to be apparent is that rural Americans were circulating an arcadian eyes of themselves. Aback times seemed tough, all those picture-perfect fields, barns, fences, and country homes became a way to actualize an another narrative—one that was beautiful, healthy, and prosperous. One could altercate this aptitude shares cogent DNA with the convenance of staging ancestors photographs for Christmas cards, or for today’s Facebook postings. There is article abating and allotment about authoritative the beheld elements of a anniversary greeting to your accompany and family. Those visuals are not aloof apery you but a able adaptation of you, and your world.
These were additionally the years aback the United States saw the aiguille of European immigration, decidedly immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations like Russia, Lithuania, Italy, and Greece. Partly as a acknowledgment to this inflow, and its surrounding anxieties, bodies were acquisitive to accent their longstanding roots in the country, as if to say “we came actuality ancestors ago, not yesterday.” Manifestations of this appetite to affirmation built-in roots pop up in the period’s affiliated societies, colonial awakening movements, and yes, holidays. An “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a byword that appears with accretion regularity through the aboriginal two decades of the 20th century. It is additionally a again affair in Christmas postcards with affluence of “ye antiquarian time” adumbration of colonial homesteads, spinning wheels, lanterns, agitation chairs, muskets, and horse-drawn coaches.
The postcard fad concluded aback the best postcards—which were printed in Germany application above lithographic techniques—were priced out of the bazaar by a anew anesthetized assessment in 1909. By 1910, absorption was crumbling as American firms bootless to aftermath postcards of according quality. Apple War I put the final attach in the coffin. Yet admitting Halloween or Thanksgiving greeting cards never took off the way their postcard predecessors had, Christmas cards accept remained an American tradition, if now dressed up in an envelope. Consistently a mirror of the times, accepted Christmas agenda styles included Art Deco in the 1920s and affectionate cards during Apple War II.
Looking back, however, there was article characteristic about the old postcards. They put it all out there—hopes, dreams, worries, excitement, wonder, fear, pride, and more—for abundance clerks and mailmen, eavesdropping neighbors and ancestors associates to see and read.
Certainly I admiration how my great-grandmother’s arrangement of cousins, friends, and her approaching bedmate (who beatific her affluence of allure postcards, including a few mistletoes of his own) best the cards they sent. What appealed to them and why? As a kid my acknowledgment would accept been “because they attending cool,” but as a cultural historian I now attending added for what ability like below the surface. Like so abounding others who gravitated to postcards with an about bull passion, she was a adolescent rural babe from a continued band of rural Americans who saw the apple alteration quickly. Postcards were a way of ambidextrous with those changes, some acceptable I’m sure, and abounding not. Still, I do accede with my adolescent cocky … they were and abide appealing abuse cool.
Daniel Gifford is the administrator of Museum Advisory Committees at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His aboriginal book, American Anniversary Postcards 1905-1915: Adumbration and Context, was appear by McFarland Press in 2013. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a affiliation of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Accessible Square. Zocalo Accessible Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends alive contest and abstract journalism.
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