In December it is traditional to send Christmas cards. We have discussed this practice on the AAS blog in the past and also have looked at the popularity of the New Year’s card, something that has fallen out of fashion entirely in the United States. But one aspect of nineteenth-century holiday cards that we have not explored is the fact that so many of their subjects seem incongruous to twenty-first-century eyes. The cards do sometimes feature the more expected snowy scenes, Santa, and the Nativity (right) with greetings of “Best Wishes,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Peace and Joy.” But more often than not, today’s viewer is left scratching his head asking, “That’s a Christmas card?”
It was easy to pull examples of the unexpected genres we have in mind. The first, and by far the largest group with literally hundreds of representative cards in the Society’s collection, is the floral-themed card. These cards range from simple messages with floral borders to more elaborate depictions of bouquets and poetry. Spring flowers were especially popular, with apple blossoms (right), pea plants, and poppies appearing on cards, but autumnal botanicals also make an appearance, including maple leaves, nettles, and goldenrod (below). The language of flowers, where different blossoms denote different emotions and characteristics (pink carnations = you are unforgettable and rhododendrons = strength) was better understood in the nineteenth century, which might help explain the popularity of these cards. They are also quite pretty and were often saved by recipients and pasted into scrapbooks.
Other themes produced by several printers in the New England region involved the sea. Messages are framed by elaborate coral and shells, ships sail into the sunset and beach scenes with rolling waves and children playing in the sand read “Merry Christmas” and “Happiness Be Yours.” Regional cards are still published today, of course, with snowy desert scenes of cacti and rock formations coming from our relatives in the American Southwest and lighthouses bedecked with Christmas lights and wreaths offered for sale in gift shops on Cape Cod. But the nineteenth-century cards lack those little clues (the snow, the wreaths) and just depict happy summer scenes and underwater plants that happen to also be carrying seasonal greetings.
Finally, popular nineteenth-century Christmas cards often featured animals of all kinds—and we are not talking about reindeer and penguins. Animals like elephants, cats, dogs, and birds grace hundreds of Christmas and New Year’s cards, some for comic effect and others with just decorative intent. Louis Prang, who is often considered the Father of American Christmas Cards and who produced all of the examples we selected for this post, produced whole series of holiday cards of birds with nests and comic cats and dogs dressed like people. Sometimes these animal cards make “holiday sense” to modern eyes (such as a mama elephant giving her baby a toy as a gift as seen below), but other times we can’t grasp the holiday significance of dogs wearing top hats or kittens in bibs.
So this holiday season when you send or receive a card, think for a moment about the significance of the image on the front of the card—it likely makes perfect sense to you, immersed as you are in the cultural context of the moment. But in 2080, will someone look at it and say, “That’s a Christmas card?” In fact, now that we think of it, will the practice of sending folded pieces of colorfully printed paper stock, with shiny inks and velvet touches, have fallen completely out of fashion and our 2080 imagined scholar asks instead, “What is a Christmas card?”