Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged christmas

Small red brick building with bell tower
Scotch Settlement School in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller


Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers an engaging look into the ways Americans celebrated Christmas in the past. At Scotch Settlement School, the holiday vignette reflects the Christmas programs that took place in the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape of rural America.

Black-and-white photo of group of African American boys and girls standing with an African American woman outside a small wooden building
Students and teacher pose outside their rural one-room school in Summerville, South Carolina, about 1903. / THF115900

The schoolhouse—often the only public building in the neighborhood—was a center of community life in rural areas. It was not only a place where children learned to read, write, and do arithmetic, but might also serve as a place to attend church services, go to Grange meetings, vote in elections, or listen to a debate.

Matted black-and-white photo of group of children wearing stars and stripes sitting and standing with a man in a suit in front of a wooden building
Students dressed in patriotic costumes for a school program, pageant, or parade, about 1905. / THF700057

People in rural communities particularly looked forward to the programs put on by the students who attended these schools—local boys and girls who ranged in age from about seven to the mid-teens. School programs were often presented throughout the year for occasions such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, Arbor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and eighth-grade graduation. People came from miles around to country schools to attend these events.

Page with handwritten text and holly leaf and berries drawn with crayon (?)
Folded page with handwritten text
Handwritten Christmas program from Blair School, Webster County, Iowa, December 23, 1914
. / THF700097, THF700098

Among the most anticipated events that took place at the schoolhouse was the Christmas program—it was a highlight of the rural winter social season. Preparations usually started right after Thanksgiving as students began learning poems and other recitations, rehearsing a play, or practicing songs. Every child was included. Students might have their first experience in public speaking or singing before an audience at these school programs.

Room interior containing Christmas tree, wood-burning stove, bookshelves, and American flag hanging from wall
Interior of Scotch Settlement School during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.

The schoolroom was often decorated for the occasion, sometimes with a Christmas tree. During the late 1800s, when the presence of Christmas trees was not yet a widespread tradition, many children saw their first Christmas tree at the school Christmas program. Presents like candy, nuts, fruit, or mittens—provided by parents or other members of the community—were often part of the event. Growing up in 1870s frontier Iowa, writer Hamlin Garland recalled the local minister bringing a Christmas tree to the schoolhouse one Christmas—a tree with few candles or shiny decorations, but one loaded with presents. Forty years later, Garland vividly remembered the bag of popcorn he received that day.

Teachers were often required to organize at least two programs a year. Teachers who put on unsuccessful programs might soon find themselves out of a teaching position. Teachers in rural schools usually came from a similar background to their students—often from the same farming community—so an observant teacher would have understood the kind of school program that would please students, parents, and the community.

Children at times performed in buildings so crowded that audience members had to stand along the edges of the classroom. Sometimes there wasn’t room for everyone to squeeze in. To see their parents and so many other members of the community in the audience helped make these children aware that the adults in their lives valued their schoolwork. This encouraged many of the students to appreciate their opportunity for education—even if they didn’t fully realize it until years later. Some children might even have been aware of how these programs contributed to a sense of community.

Postcard with handwritten text, blurred address, and one-cent stamp
Postcard with the handwritten message, “Our school have [sic] a tree & exercises at the Church across from the schoolhouse & we all have a part in it,” from 11-year-old Ivan Colman of Tuscola County, Michigan, December 1913. / THF146214

These simple Christmas programs—filled with recitations, songs, and modest gifts—created cherished lifelong memories for countless children.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

childhood, music, acting, events, holidays, Christmas, education, school, Scotch Settlement School, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Holiday Nights, by Jeanine Head Miller

Those who decorated for Christian holidays made the gathering of evergreens a ritual. Families and friends ventured into the woods and cut conifers and other wintergreens to festoon churches, ballrooms, and private homes. This post focuses on the process of acquiring the iconic Christmas tree, a conifer or cone-bearing tree, evergreen because it retained its foliage throughout the winter season and prized for its shape, color, aroma, and association with gift-giving.

The native ranges of conifers affected personal preferences for Christmas trees.

Page with text and image of two birds on a tree branch
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the perch for a female and male cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), drawn by John Jay Audubon (1785–1851) in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 1811, reproduced by the New York Historical Society in 1966. / THF251903

Across the southern and eastern United States, the eastern red cedar (really, a juniper) proved a popular tree choice for those who could cut their own. The tree grew rapidly along the edges of woods, encroaching into fields and pastures. Thus, removing a few trees to deck the halls at Christmas time also served the purpose of containing the juniper and retaining arable land and pasture.

The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) appealed to landowners for many of the same reasons. A report in the Detroit Free Press (December 10, 1901) explained that in Maine, the “young firs, which are almost exclusively used for Christmas trees, are good for nothing else—in many sections being considered a nuisance, as they grow like burdocks and crowd out better trees.” Harvesting the trees for urban markets became a festive occasion as the reporter explained, with “whole families going into the woods and taking their dinners along.”

Evergreen branch with large, dark, tightly closed pinecones
Print made from a watercolor sketch of “Alpine Fir” by Mary Vaux Walcott (1860–1940), printed by William Edmund Rudge, Inc., 1925. / THF125075

The subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), also known as the Alpine fir, grew in the high-elevation forests of the Canadian Rockies and western United States. It was much less easily accessible for families harvesting their Christmas tree, but its tall profile and stout branches appealed to Christmas tree shoppers none the less.

Bringing evergreens into private and public spaces during the darkest days of the year (the winter solstice) offered hope for the next growing season. Germanic people receive credit for adding light to the conifer. An 1836 illustration, “Christmas Eve,” showed a Christmas tree with candles aglow. The editor explained this as a well-known German tradition “that almost every family has its Christmas tree covered with a hundred lights and many beautiful gifts, and surrounded generally by a little group of happy beings” (The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, edited by Hermann Bokum and published in Boston by Light & Horton in 1836, page 9).

The hand-tinted lithograph below, of a boy carrying a tree and a girl carrying a bundle of greens, printed in Hamburg, reinforced a tradition that increasing numbers of German immigrants brought with them to America during the mid-19th century.

Snowy woods with young boy carrying evergreen tree and young girl carrying a bundle of greenery
Color Lithograph, "The Christmas Tree," printed by Gustav W. Seitz, Hamburg, 1856–1866. / THF108194

By 1867, “the pleasant Germanic custom of gathering the family round a Christmas tree ... has become thoroughly domesticated in this country.” So declared Harper’s Weekly (December 18, 1867) in a brief explanation of the reasons why families no longer hung stockings ‘neath the chimney with care, but instead hung presents from Christmas trees. A full-page illustration of “The Christmas Tree” further emphasized the point.

Matted black-and-white photo of a Christmas tree covered in decorations and surrounded by packages
Christmas tree decorated with candles, popcorn strings, and toys, circa 1900. / THF290114

The bucolic imagery of bringing a Christmas tree home through snowy fields to a rural farmhouse contrasted with the risky business of tree markets.

White bulb ornament with image of person dragging Christmas tree across a snowy field toward a house; box for ornament is also in photo
Hallmark "Memories of Christmas" Christmas ornament, 1998. / THF186978

Families invested their labor in tree harvests. “A man cuts the trees close to the roots and a boy or a strong girl clips away with a sharp hatchet the few dead branches near the base. Women and boys tie the trees into bundles of a dozen each, binding them with strong cords, and then the harvest is piled into hayricks and taken to the nearest railroad station.” Often middlemen stepped in. As the New York World reported (reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901), “the evergreen harvests are generally bought by men who make a business in winter of supplying the holiday green markets of large cities.”

Families cutting conifers for urban markets, middlemen trying to sell them, and customers trying to buy them all relied on railroads to move the perishable cargo. This seasonal business was no holiday (to borrow colleague Matt Anderson’s turn of phrase in his blog post, “Winter Railroading was No Holiday”).

Black-and-white photo of evergreen trees bundled and leaned against each other outside a large building
Christmas Tree Market, New York City, Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1903. Another view of this market at Barclay Street Station shows smaller trees in bundles to the left of the taller trees. These fit more closely the trees bound up by Maine families and shipped by train to the city, as described in the New York World article mentioned elsewhere in this post. / THF144363

Urban customers had little time to waste because trees arrived close to Christmas day. The Detroit Free Press reported that “Christmas trees, that is to say evergreens, are up in the market” (December 21, 1879). This arrival a few days before the holy day/holiday remained fairly consistent during the 19th century. A decade later (December 20, 1889), the Free Press reported, “Christmas trees have appeared on the market.”

What did these conifers cost? During December 1901, prices depended on tree height: “For trees five to six feet tall the buyers in Maine pay five cents, and for trees six to ten feet tall ten to fifteen cents. In the city these trees bring twenty-five cents to $1” (New York World reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1901). Note that these prices are likely per foot, not per tree.

Customers looking for Christmas evergreen goods in Detroit a week later (December 18, 1901) could expect to pay eight cents per foot for an “Xmas tree” as reported by the Free Press. The market price for a 20-yard roll of “evergreen” was 85 cents to $1 and for a holly and evergreen wreath, $1 per dozen. In 2021 prices, that’s an average of $1.63 to $2.60 per foot for a six-foot tree, and $27.66 to $32.54 for a 20-yard roll of evergreen.

Whether families cut their own or paid market price for their conifer, photographs of home interiors indicate the ways they decorated.

Black-and-white photo of Christmas tree in a room decorated with garland and other Christmas decorations
First electrically lighted Christmas tree, home of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison Electric Light Company, December 1882. / THF69137

A magnifying glass and close inspection of the original print could confirm the tree type that Edward Hibberd Johnson, wife Margaret, and their three children (Edward H. Jr., Edna, and Lillian) enjoyed as of December 22, 1882. Subscribers to the Detroit Post and Tribune could read about this first tree lit with electric lights—80 red, white, and blue bulbs, hand wired—as reported by journalist William Augustus Croffut. The Johnson family (or their staff) also strung electric lights in the garland running from window treatments to the ceiling light fixture. Readers of Croffut’s article might even have anticipated the possibilities in Detroit, because the Western Edison Light Company had just offered an Edison incandescent light plant for use at Detroit’s Central Market. Detroit’s Committee on Gas was considering the proposal (Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1882).

Artificial illumination of the Christmas tree became standard practice quickly.

Lot with small shelter with person by it, displaying evergreen Christmas trees and wreaths
Christmas greens at Holiday Nights, December 5, 2021. / Photograph by Debra A. Reid

Today, Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village features winter greens and conifer trees in several residences and across the decades from the Ford Home (1870s) and Edison Homestead (1910s) to Cotswold Cottage (1940s). Menlo Park features the 1880 premiere of an electric distribution system, and Edison Illuminating Company’s Station A explores the history of Christmas tree lighting. The tree and greens markets (both in Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights and outside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) convey the joy and anticipation of bringing evergreens into the home ready for decorating in the spirit of the season.

Greenery and lights can brighten these dark nights of the winter solstice for all.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

shopping, nature, by Debra A. Reid, Christmas, holidays, events, Greenfield Village, Holiday Nights

Postcard with Santa in an old-fashioned airplane flying over a snowy scene as a woman waves; also contains textSanta Claus employs the latest in transportation technology to share his greetings in this Christmas postcard, 1910. / THF93052


During the first two decades of the 20th century, people were likely to find colorful Christmas postcards when they reached into their mailboxes as the holiday neared. Americans were experiencing a postcard craze!

A New Idea: Sending Holiday Greetings


Postcard with several children in old-fashioned dress holding hands and dancing around a small Christmas tree
A pre-postcard era Christmas card by Louis Prang & Company of Boston, 1880. During the mid-1870s, Prang began publishing Christmas and other greeting cards, creating a highly successful Christmas card industry. / THF16646

It’s not that people didn’t send Christmas cards before that time. They did, especially during the 1870s and 1880s as Christmas became more widely celebrated in homes and in the community. Sending a Christmas greeting card was a way to keep in touch with distant family and friends. In the decades following the Civil War, as Congress increasingly standardized delivery, mail traveled more rapidly, dependably, and cheaply than it had before, transporting Christmas cards and other mail throughout the nation.

Matted black-and-white photo of a man and woman in a room filled with mail bins and cubbies with items sorted into them
Post office in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, about 1913. / THF700079

Yet interest in giving or sending printed holiday greetings through the mail had waned somewhat by the 1890s. That is, until circumstances—lower postal rates and improved delivery service to all areas of the country—helped create a postcard boom for urban and rural residents alike and encouraged a Christmas card revival.

The Postman Brings Postcard Cheer


n 1898, the United States Post Office reduced the cost of mailing privately printed postcards to one cent. As postcards caught the public’s fancy in the first decade of the 20th century, these cards blossomed with colorful images, humorous messages, or holiday greetings. Postcards quickly became an attractive and ready means of inexpensive communication, with room for a personal message on the reverse.

During the “Golden Age” of postcards, from about 1900 to 1914, people bought and mailed billions. In 1904, the New York City post office alone handled about 30,000 cards per day. Many of these billions of postcards were holiday-themed—Christmas postcards were the most popular.

Black-and-white photo of small delivery trucks lined up in front of a large brick building
United States Post Office delivery trucks, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 1908. / THF700044

Double arch-shaped image of postman by mailbox on a residential street adding items to mailbag; a bike leans against postbox and a large sack is nearby
Mail carrier, about 1925. / THF289999

By 1902, rural mail routes had become a permanent part of the postal service. Instead of having to make a trip into town to the post office to retrieve their mail, rural residents now had the same advantage as city dwellers—mail was delivered directly to their homes.

Man sits in very small boxy cart/wagon hitched to a horse in front of a building
Rural Free Delivery in a horse-drawn mail delivery wagon, 1895–1920. / THF143935

Silver arch-shaped mailbox with text on front and side
Rural Free Delivery mailbox, 1900–1916. / THF158049

Christmas Postcard Greetings—Inexpensive and Colorful


Postcard with eye-shaped illustration of children skating on an icy pond; border contains holly and text
Back of postcard with printed text and place for writing message, address, and stamp
Postcard advertising the Souvenir Post Card Company’s line of Christmas postcards, about 1910. /
THF700082 and THF700083

These colorful seasonal greetings were not only affordable, they were attractive and appealing.

The time was right. Between 1900 and 1910, entrepreneurs established most of the American greeting card companies, including Hallmark Cards, American Greetings, Rust Craft, and the Gibson Art Company. Many of the colorful postcards companies sold to their American customers were printed in Germany—American printing technology lagged behind that of the Germans.

Postcard with Santa in sleigh being pulled by four reindeer; also contains a Christmas tree and child sleeping
German-made postcard of Santa and reindeer and sleeping child, 1907-1910. / THF136483

The postcards displayed a range of what we now think of as symbols of Christmas, including Santa Claus, children with toys, Christmas trees, houses and churches in the snow, ice skating, bells, holly, and angels.

Postcard with images of birds, holly berries, and a holly leaf containing an image of a stone bridge and houses in snow
This postcard combines holly with a snowy landscape. / THF6869

Vertical postcard with text and image of Santa holding his hands out to two reindeer
Young girl in spats, blue coat, and hat with blue ribbon pulls a small cart with a doll in it; also contains text
Postcards sporting images of Santa with reindeer, 1907–1910, and a child with toys, 1905–1910. /
THF136481 and THF4503

Postcard with decorative background containing holly and bells; also contains text and image of church in snow
Vertical blue postcard with image of winged angel in white robes holding a small Christmas tree lit with candles; also contains text
Christmas postcards—with a snow-covered church, holly, and bells, and with an angel holding a Christmas tree, 1910 and 1915. /
THF700046 and THF700048

Up-to-date technology made its appearance in these Christmas postcards as well.

Postcard with Santa with sack of toys on his back on left side and young child on right side, talking to each other on old-fashioned telephones; also contains text
A child uses the telephone, rather than a letter, to communicate her wish list to Santa, 1907. / THF135741

Postcard of two people in an open car decked with holly in a snowy woods
Postcard of two people in an open car driving through snow
Images of automobiles often appeared on Christmas cards of the era, 1907
1910 and 1910. / THF135815 and THF143923

Postcard of St. Nick in purple cape on motorcycle with toys in front basket; contains text and border of holly leaves and berries
Santa tries out motorcycle delivery of presents rather than reindeer-powered transportation, 1910–1920. / THF4508

The postcard craze peaked between 1907 and 1910—it was particularly popular among rural and small-town women in the northern United States. Some 700 million postcards were mailed during the year ending June 30, 1908, alone.

Yet the postcard craze would soon ebb. In 1909, a tariff was placed on imported postcards, making the German-printed imports more expensive. The quality of available postcards began to fall. Public interest waned and artistic tastes changed. In 1914, World War I further disrupted the postcard industry, as German-produced cards and high-quality dyes used for ink became unavailable. As the war continued, many companies shifted to greeting card—rather than postcard—production. The telephone probably contributed as well, as more households had phones to reach family and friends more quickly. The “Golden Age” of postcards was drawing to a close.

Step into Christmas Postcards Past


Small, beige, one-story wooden building with wreath on door and lights strung above it
Phoenixville Post Office in Greenfield Village during Holiday Nights. / Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller

Today, strolling past the Phoenixville Post Office during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village offers a glimpse into this slice of Christmas postal history.

Two people stick their faces through holes in a life-size holiday postcard among evergreens
Two people stick their faces through holes in a life-size holiday postcard among evergreens
Photos courtesy of Jeanine Miller and Glenn Miller.

Visitors can experience the early 20th century postcard craze for themselves by posing behind enlarged versions of Christmas postcards placed near the Phoenixville Post Office—and then act as digital “postal carriers” by sending these images to family and friends by text or email.

A row of large wooden backdrops with holes cut for people's faces stands in front of a building along a sidewalk
Photo courtesy of Jeanine Miller.

From a curator’s point of view, it’s a wonderful to see these postcards of Christmas Past become part of Christmas Present! You can take a “peek” into Christmas mailboxes of the past by clicking here to see additional early-20th-century postcards in our collection.

Merry Christmas!


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.

events, postcards, holidays, Holiday Nights, Greenfield Village, correspondence, Christmas, by Jeanine Head Miller

Pop-up greeting card featuring Santa playing a guitar and two reindeer on a stage holding a banner; also contains text

THF188409

Karl Koehler printed, folded, scored, and snipped paper to create three-dimensional Christmas cards and decorations. His post–World War Two pop-up designs added an unexpected dimension to Christmas holiday greetings at a time when most American card companies produced flat, center-folded Christmas cards. Koehler's paper engineering followed in a line of other creative pop-up designs—only he applied it to Christmas cards. Eventually, others would come to see the joy in three-dimensional Christmas cards.

Page with text and photo portrait of man wearing glasses
Karl Koehler is pictured in this advertisement piece from the early 1950s. / THF621157

Karl Koehler


Karl Koehler (1913–2000) was born in Hennepin County, Minnesota. When Koehler was fourteen, his father died, and the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with his uncle. Koehler trained at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, and by 1940 was employed at the Pictograph Corporation in New York City. Working under Rudolf Modley, Koehler designed pictorial symbols used in business, corporate, and government publications to communicate statistical data.

During the Second World War, Koehler directed artwork for military training manuals, and in 1942, co-created two award-winning posters for the National War Poster Competition. He returned to Pennsylvania after the war and settled in Coopersburg. There he began designing Christmas cards and holiday decorations.

Page with text, image of three-dimensional paper Christmas tree, and graphics of ornaments and other tree decorations as well as a banner
In 1950, Koehler dreamed up a Christmas tree that people could construct from the flat pages of the December 25th issue of Life magazine—a holiday surprise for the whole family. / THF624861

Koehler's whimsical three-dimensional, hand-assembled decorations and cards delighted children and adults alike. He made traditional folded holiday greeting cards for businesses and corporations, but none rivaled the depth-filled creations Koehler handcrafted in his studio. He trademarked the name "Mantelpiece"—where better to display pop-up Christmas greetings?—and sold his holiday creations in high-end department stores and museums. His list of clients included Nelson Rockefeller, Greer Garson, and Benson Ford. Koehler's artwork was fresh, colorful, and bright, incorporating a bit of fantasy and fun into the traditional symbols of the seasons. And his cards literally added an unexpected dimension to holiday greetings. One European design journal stated, "Karl Koehler has … swept clean the dusty structure of greeting card design."

Blue doors that open to reveal a Christmas tree with four angels floating around it holding signs with text
THF188412 and THF188411

Christmas and Pop-up Design Influences


Christmas cards, as we know them today, first appeared in England in the early 1840s. Historians note that the first card showed a happy scene of holiday feasting flanked by images depicting acts of charity. The custom of sending Christmas cards, though not initially widespread, grew slowly and by 1850, Americans had joined the holiday tradition. By the late 1800s, more and more Americans began giving inexpensive and colorful cards—made possible by low-cost postage and new printing technologies—to friends, family, and acquaintances.

GIF cycling through three images of greeting cards featuring intricate lacy cutouts, honeycomb tissue paper, and other three-dimensional elements
Many valentines in the 19th and early-20th centuries contained layers of embossed paper or other materials. Others had a pop-up element that made the valentine three-dimensional. / THF99091, THF166622, and THF313817

While Karl Koehler focused on crafting high-end Christmas cards, he appears to have drawn much of his card design and construction from late-19th- and early-20th-century valentines. Most 19th-century Christmas cards tended to be relatively flat and remained so well into the 20th century. Valentines, however, had greater dimensionality. English and American manufacturers produced elaborate valentines constructed of highly embossed paper, layered with colorful inserts and, more importantly, pop-up elements that made the valentines three-dimensional. One clue that valentines played a role in Koehler's Christmas card production is a listing from the estate auction advertisement after his death in 2000: "100 old pop-up/pull-out mechanical Valentines."

Three-dimensional blue and white paper card with cut-out circle in middle revealing two children, Christmas ornaments, and holiday greenery
THF188403

Other influences, such as pop-up and movable books, may have played a part in Koehler's designs. Movable and pop-up books usually included flaps, revolving discs (volvelles), pull tabs, and other mechanical devices that made elements on the pages move. By the late 1800s, publishers and designers produced these books—some with elaborate works hidden between the pages—mainly for children. New York-based McLoughlin Brothers began producing movable books in the late-19th century in the United States—one of the first American companies to do so. One of McLoughlin's earliest efforts contained colorful illustrations that folded or popped out into three-dimensional displays. While there is no documented connection with these types of books, several of Koehler's Christmas cards created a three-dimensional stage-like quality reminiscent of movable or pop-up books.

Three-dimensional paper card with a frame and angel surrounding a scene of houses and a Christmas tree in snow
THF188405

After Christmas Cards


In the late 1950s, Koehler applied for a patent for a collapsible and expandable pyramid structure design used for "greeting cards, calendars, containers, advertising novelties, displays, geometric educational devices, etc." But a few years later, in November 1961, the last printed mention of his Christmas card production appeared. That same year, Koehler traveled to Ireland to help create an industrial design course at that country's National School of Art. He made other trips to Europe and later traveled to Brazil and wrote of his excursions. Existing documentation suggests that Koehler did not create any new three-dimensional holiday cards during the last decades of the 20th century.

Three-dimensional Christmas card with a cityscape of buildings, a Christmas tree, and banners with text
THF188402

Today, card companies such as Graphics3, LovePop, Hallmark, and others create an array of elaborate holiday pop-up cards meant to delight both giver and recipient. Few have probably ever heard of Karl Koehler, but they would appreciate his designs and revel in his amusing creations.

View more Christmas cards designed by Karl Koehler in our Digital Collections.


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

popular culture, holidays, entrepreneurship, design, correspondence, Christmas, by Andy Stupperich

GIF cycling through toy images: frog in top hat and scarf, pig in dress and bonnet, and blue creature with hooked nose in yellow top hat and holding a book
Muppet Christmas Carol Kids’ Meal Toys, 1993 / THF304874, THF304875, THF304876


Released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson’s death in 1990. His son Brian, along with his siblings, had taken over the company. Brian had previously worked on several of his father’s projects, including building the first penguin puppet for The Muppet Show, helping create the bicycle sequence in The Great Muppet Caper, and providing voices for the film Labyrinth (as Hoggle) and the TV series The Storyteller (as Dog).

Bill Haber, the Hensons’ agent, was the first to pitch the idea of creating a version of A Christmas Carol. While Brian—who was interested in continuing his father’s work, but wanted to avoid too much of a direct comparison—considered the idea, Haber took the initiative to sell the rights to ABC TV, who planned to make a television film. When longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl submitted his final script for approval, however, executives at Walt Disney Pictures opted to purchase it and make it into a feature film.

Green book cover with gold text and illustrations and black decorative elements
1876 edition of Christmas Stories, which included A Christmas Carol / THF624009

Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, first published in 1844, was hugely popular during its time. The first edition, published on December 19th, sold out by Christmas Eve, and four more editions would follow by the end of the year. During his lifetime, Dickens would adapt the piece for public readings, which he himself would perform until his death in 1870. Stage productions would soon follow, and even today it is common to see A Christmas Carol on offer from theater companies during the holiday season. The earliest surviving screen adaptation is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, from 1901. Between then and 1992, 14 other adaptations had hit the silver screen, and the plot of A Christmas Carol was familiar to many, even if they had not read the original story.

Man with beard and mustache seated in chair, holding cane and top hat, next to a table with a statue on it and drapery
Portrait of Charles Dickens, 1865-1870 / THF121158

Originally aiming to make The Muppet Christmas Carol into a parody of the original story, in keeping with the irreverence for which the Muppets were famous, Henson and Juhl soon realized that no previous film adaptations had truly captured Dickens’s prose. Rethinking their approach, they decided to cast Gonzo in the role of Charles Dickens, and make him the omniscient storyteller—a device that not only allowed them to include dialogue that was 95% faithful to Dickens’s original work, but also mirrored the earlier public readings of the story. Rizzo the Rat joined in as Gonzo’s sidekick and a form of Greek chorus, interjecting often-humorous commentary throughout the film.

Blue creature with hooked nose, wearing yellow top hat and holding a yellow book
Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304876

Having decided on this approach, it was time to “cast” the rest of the story’s characters. As Brian Henson explained in a 2015 interview, “Bob Cratchit was a natural role for Kermit. He was almost playing himself.” The role of Mrs. Cratchit went to Miss Piggy, Tiny Tim was assigned to Robin the Frog, Fozzie Bear became Fozziwig (previously known as Fezziwig in Dickens’s original), and Statler and Waldorf served as the ghosts of the Marley brothers (a notably drastic change from the original, where there is only one Marley ghost—yet a necessary one, as you can’t have Statler without Waldorf, or vice versa). Other Muppets filled out the rest of the supporting cast, and brand-new Muppets were created for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, to detract less from the ghosts’ ominous nature.

Frog wearing blue top hat and jacket and red scarf
Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304874

The one principal human actor in the production was Michael Caine, who played Ebenezer Scrooge. Upon accepting the role, Caine said, “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.” This choice continued the tradition of blending the world of the Muppets with the real world, seen in other Henson projects such as Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, arguably adding to the “realness” and accessibility of the works and worlds Henson created.

Although it opened to mixed reviews, and achieved only modest box-office success, the film went on to become a beloved part of the Muppet filmography. For some, the appeal lies in its faithfulness to Dickens’s original story. Others appreciate the film’s songs, written by Paul Williams (who also wrote “The Rainbow Connection”). For many, though, the best way to sum it up is that the film is simply delightful, marrying the best of the Muppets with the traditions of Dickens. In doing so, The Muppet Christmas Carol serves an example of the power of imagination to transform the familiar into something totally new.

Page with text and image of child with crutch, waving
Tiny Tim’s famous final line in A Christmas Carol, "God bless us every one," featured on the title page of Christmas Stories, 1876 / THF624011


Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

holidays, popular culture, Muppets, movies, Christmas, by Rachel Yerke, books

Woman in candlelit kitchen with a variety of bowls and plates containing food on kitchen table


From the kitchens of Greenfield Village to yours at home, this year’s collection of Holiday Nights recipes are inspired by our own historic recipe bank. Try our 2020 recipes and then dig deeper into our online collection of historic recipes. Thanks to our supporting partners at Meijer for making this year’s recipe collection possible.

Card and text versions of the recipes follow, or access a high-res PDF, suitable for printing, of all four recipe cards here.

(Please Note: These recipes are taken from original historical resources and contain spellings and references that will be unfamiliar to today’s cooks. These were retained for accuracy and are explained where possible.)


FORD HOME, 1876


Recipe card with text

New's [New Year's] Eve Cookies 

Weigh out a pound of sugar, three-quarters pound butter, stir them to a cream, then add three beaten eggs, a grated nutmeg, a spoonful of extract of lemon and a pint of flour; dissolve a teaspoonful of saleratus [baking powder] in a teacup of milk, strain and mix it with half a teacup of cider and stir it into the cookies; then add flour to make them sufficiently stiff to roll out. Bake them as soon as cut into cakes in a quick oven [375-400º F] till light brown.

May Perrin Goff, Detroit Free Press Cook Book (The Household and Ladies Cyclopeadia), p. 43.


EDISON HOMESTEAD, 1915


Recipe card with text

Snow Balls

2 cups sugar
1 cup sweet milk
½ cup butter
3 cups Five Roses flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
5 eggs (whites)

Mix and beat well. Bake in deep square tin. Cut in 2 inch squares. Remove outside. Frost on all sides, then roll in freshly grated cocoanut.

Confectioner’s Frosting: Two tablespoons boiling water or cream and a little flavoring essence of vanilla, lemon, or almond. Add enough confectioner’s sugar to the liquid to make of right consistency to spread.

Lake of the Woods Milling Company Limited, The Five Roses Cook Book, 1915, p. 86, 121.


GIDDINGS FAMILY HOME, 1760


2020 Holiday Nights Recipe Cards_3_Syllabub

Everlasting Syllabub

Take five half pints of thick cream, half a pint of Rhenish wine, half a pint of sack, and the juice of two large Seville oranges, grate in just the yellow rind of three lemons, and a pound of double-refined sugar well beat and sifted; mix all together with a spoonful of orange-flower water; beat it well together with a whisk half an hour, then with a spoon take it off, and lay it on a sieve to drain, then fill your glasses: these will keep about a week, and are better made the day before. The best way to whip syllabub is, have a fine large chocolate-mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in: it is both quicker done, and the froth stronger; for the thin that is left at the bottom, have ready some calf’s-foot jelly boiled and clarified, there must be nothing but the calf’s-foot boiled to a hard jelly; when cold take off the fat, clear it with the whites of eggs, run it through a flannel bag, and mix it with the clear which you saved of the syllabubs; sweeten it to your palate, and give it a boil, then pour it into basins, or what you please: when cold, turn it out, and it is a fine flummery.

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796, p. 179-80.


SUSQUEHANNA PLANTATION, 1860


Recipe card with text

Lafayette Ginger Cake

One and a half pounds of wheat flour, quarter of a pound of butter, one pint of molasses, one pint of brown sugar, ten eggs, ginger to the taste, one teaspoonful of pearlash  [1/2 tsp. baking soda] dissolved in warm water; stir all together, and bake in pans or patties. Currants and raisins may be added.

Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847, p. 198.

Greenfield Village, food, recipes, holidays, Holiday Nights, events, Christmas

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath

Christmas tree in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Jim Johnson)

During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we really enjoy showing how Americans would have celebrated Christmas in the 19th century. In almost all the houses, we use historical primary sources to try to glean out descriptions of what people may have done—but we have almost no concrete visual evidence. However, one huge exception is the Wright Home, the family home of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

We know from various sources that in 1900 there was a big homecoming in Dayton, Ohio. Reuchlin Wright, one of Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers, was returning home from living apart for a very long time, slightly estranged. In celebration, the family decided to put up their first Christmas tree. Wilbur and Orville, who were amateur photographers but probably as good as any professional of the time, documented some of that process.

Within the last decade, we have been able to access a very high-resolution image of the Wright family Christmas tree image from the Library of Congress, and the details just leapt out at us. This photograph, which we know was taken in 1900, documents exactly how the Wright Brothers designed and put up their Christmas tree. We examined all the minutiae in the photo and have attempted to recreate this tree as exactly as possible.

Decorated Christmas tree in corner of room with wrapped and unwrapped items underneath
Wright Home Parlor Decorated for Christmas, Original Site, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF119489

The toys, the various ornaments—it's all in line with what's typical in the time period. So if you look at the tree in the Wright Home, you’ll see it lit with candles—this is not an electrified house yet in 1900. There's a variety of ornaments designed to hold candies and similar things. It has strung popcorn, which would have been homemade, but it also has store-bought German tinsel garland, glass ornaments (either from Poland or Germany), and all kinds of additional decorations that may have been saved from year to year. There's a homemade star on top that has tinsel tails coming off it.

For many years, we just had a low-resolution, fuzzy photograph of the tree, and we reproduced things as faithfully as we could—for example, what appeared to be a paper scrap-art angel. The first glimpse of the high-resolution photograph absolutely flabbergasted us, because front-and-center on the tree is a little scrap-art of a screaming, crying baby. It must have been some sort of inside joke within the family. We were able to reproduce it exactly as it would have looked on the tree.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, each showing part of a Christmas tree with a large ornament of a screaming baby
The screaming baby scrap-art on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.

In keeping with tradition, the tree is also covered with gifts for different members of the family. It seems that the adult gifts were hung unwrapped on the tree, whereas many of the children's things were either wrapped or just placed under the tree, based on the photograph. For example, on the tree, we see a pair of what are known as Scotch gloves—you would have found examples of these in Sears catalogues of the early 1900s. There's also a fur scarf, toy trumpets, and even a change purse, all hung on the tree.

GIF cycling through two images, one black-and-white and one in color, showing part of a Christmas tree with plaid gloves hanging on it
Scotch gloves hanging on the Wright Home Christmas tree, both in the original photo and during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village.

Beneath the tree, the arrangement of toys and gifts is quite fun. There’s a pair of roller skates, a little toy train, tea sets, furniture sets, and all kinds of different things geared specifically toward all the Wright nieces and nephews who would have come to visit on that Christmas morning.

There's also a wonderful set of photographs associated with the tree after Christmas. For example, there’s one of Bertha Wright, one of Reuchlin’s middle daughters, in the next room over, sitting playing with her toys. She's clearly been interrupted in her play, and you can see that in the expression on her face: “Okay, let's get this over with.”

Girl in white dress sitting cross-legged with somewhat grumpy expression on her face
Bertha Wright, Age Five, Niece of the Wright Brothers, Daughter of Reuchlin Wright, circa 1900 / THF243319

There are also photos outside the house, featuring the sleigh (which is prominent under the tree in the high-res photograph, stacked with books). Behind them in all these photographs is a little fir tree—the tree that was inside the house for Christmas has now been placed out there and propped up in the corner, probably for the winter season.

Two children sit on a sleigh in snow in front of a door; another boy stands nearby in front of a tree
Milton, Leontine, and Ivonette Wright at Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, circa 1900 / THF243321

During Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village, we have a wonderful large high-resolution blow-up of the tree photograph set up in the Wright Home for our guests to compare-and-contrast with the recreated tree in the corner. Be sure to stop by the Wright Home to see it on your next Holiday Nights visit!

Large framed black-and-white photograph showing a Christmas tree on an easel in a room
The original historic photo of the Wright family Christmas tree, displayed in the Wright Home during Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. (Photo courtesy Brian James Egen)


This post was adapted from the transcript of a video featuring Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

photographs, home life, Wright Brothers, events, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Ellice Engdahl, by Jim Johnson, Holiday Nights, holidays, Christmas, research

Arriving at the holiday season in true 2020 fashion, the Museum experience will be different this year. Santa is focusing his time at The Henry Ford on the physically distant experience at Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village. We will miss seeing the joy of personal visits at Santa’s Arctic Landing and the exploration at seasonal hands-on opportunities. While we regret our inability to offer these programs to guests, there are still many festive offerings in the Museum between November 21st and January 3rd.

A towering 25’ Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the Plaza.

Tall Christmas tree decorated with golden ribbon and white lights, behind an elevated concrete platform

Historic dollhouses decorated for the season. Look for three Marvel characters inviting themselves to these miniature vignettes!

Large model house decorated with tiny Christmas trees and wreaths

Celebrating the Jewish Holiday of Hanukkah was a favorite in 2018. This year, it includes new acquisitions (face masks and a battery-operated menorah) to bring the display right up to the minute.

Exhibit case holding various items and textual cards

Della Robbia (Colonial Revival decorative items using fruit and foliage) on the façade of the Museum and within the Clocktower.

Brick wall with large white double doors topped by an arch of fruit

White-and-light-blue room with staircase and elaborate chandelier, decorated with Christmas trees and greenery

Our model train layout is once again decorated with festive lights and holiday happenings.

Model train layout with train tracks, train car, greenery, and houses, with Christmas decorations

The Michigan LEGO Users Group (MichLUG) has brought us yet another knockout layout. While we usually ask them for a Detroit cityscape, this year they approached us with the idea of also adding Hogwarts. Why not?

Extensive LEGO layout with boats and castle in foreground, buildings in background, and unrelated museum artifacts behind the layout

Though the Years with Hallmark: Holiday Ornaments is back with 136 ornaments in a new location. Look for this sampling of our enormous collection of Hallmark ornaments in the awards alcove in the Promenade, between the Museum Store and the Clocktower.

Cabinets with blue curtains, with hanging Christmas wreath and ornaments on stands

In short, there are still plenty of reasons to feel the cheer of the season in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—and you can explore even more of our seasonal events and stories on our holiday round-up page.


Kate Morland is Exhibits Manager at The Henry Ford.

COVID 19 impact, by Kate Morland, Hanukkah, Christmas, holidays, Henry Ford Museum, events

Various shapes and designs of holiday labels on a wood table with tape, scissors, and tiny Christmas trees

My name is Cheryl Preston, and I’m a graphic designer and design director at The Henry Ford. What I get to do here is design graphics for print and online use—design to educate teachers and learners, market events, support the stories we tell, sell food experiences, tempt shoppers, and guide visits around the museum, village and factory tour. I get to combine two passions, history and design, in one job.

clear and white glass ornament, sitting on table with excelsior, tiny Christmas trees, and a gift tag
2020 Ballotini Ornament, combined with a gift tag.

We all know 2020 has been crazy and difficult in many ways. I have been working on this year’s digital-only holiday retail campaign, where we are featuring a lot of new and old favorite signature handcrafts, along with fun, innovative toys. This has been a bright spot in tough pandemic times for me right now.

It got me thinking how we still love to gift friends and family. After you’ve found the perfect collectible glass candy cane, or an overshot woven placemat set, made in the village weaving shop, which will look great on your friend’s table, you have to wrap it!

Red-and-white woven placemat on a piece of gift wrap with gift tags; window with red-and-white checked curtains and tiny Christmas trees on windowsill in background
Overshot Placemat, combined with gift tags.

I wanted to create a tiny bit of “happy" to give our supporters, with these free printable gift tags to bring the cheer. We all need even the tiny smiles, right? You can preview the gift tags below, or click here to download a PDF version of them for printing at home.

Holiday gift tags in a variety of shapes and styles
Holiday gift tags in a variety of shapes and styles

I’m in awe of the handcrafts from our Greenfield Village artists, and the products we offer to bring the past forward, and hope these tags help you share the fun!


Cheryl Preston is Design Director at The Henry Ford.

shopping, COVID 19 impact, Christmas, holidays, by Cheryl Preston, making, design, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

HNMichelle1.jpg

A Half Century in the Making, the Journey from Yuletides to Holiday Nights

What we know and love today as Holiday Nights did not spontaneously appear in 2000 when we first opened Greenfield Village on December evenings for an immersive holiday experience. Holiday Nights has evolved and grown based on many experiences and inspirations from decades of village “Christmases past.” and the work of many talented people.

The ability to transport our guests to a different time and place is most powerful after dark as the modern world that constantly pushes closer to our borders can be temporarily pushed away. When all is said and done, Greenfield Village provides the most perfect “set” in which to bring the past alive. With over 300 years of history represented, the possibilities are endless; a world where Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life can seamlessly collide. A place where a small town from the distant past comes to life for several hours on December evenings, bringing forth the magic of the holiday season.

Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village is a classic example of “if you build it, they will come.” What began with conservative hopes for several hundred people in attendance has continually grown year after year.

thf112439Information Booklet, "Christmas at Greenfield Village 1964." THF112439

The holiday experience in Greenfield Village has a long history. As early as the mid-1960s, Village buildings were decorated both inside and out for the holiday season. Historic Christmas recipes were prepared in the village kitchens in fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Early on, all the guest experiences were limited to daytime and varied from guided tours, to full access, to tour on your own. Decorations were very elaborate, and included many collection items, but were not always based on sound historical research. Every building got a bit of Christmas, whether it would have been celebrated or not. During this period, attendance was vigorous, especially on December weekends.

THF144738Guests at Clinton Inn (Eagle Tavern) During "Yuletide Evening in the Village," 1975. THF144738

By the mid-1970s, new evening holiday experiences, called Yuletide Evenings, were introduced. Guests had the choice of a formal dinner in either the newly constructed Heritage Hall (now the Michigan Café) or the Clinton Inn (now the Eagle Tavern).The experience included horse drawn wagon, or if conditions allowed, sleigh rides into the Village, and depending on which package was purchased, a tour of 4 different decorated historic buildings, either before or after dinner. By the early 1980s, the Clinton Inn became Eagle Tavern, and the evening program changed to become an immersive 1850 dining experience much like the program offered today. Eventually, the Village tour portion of the evening was discontinued, offering a dinner only experience.  

In the early 1990s, a concerted effort had been made for some years to reinvigorate the daytime program. By paying attention to historical accuracy, but at the same time, broadening the scope and allowing for a wider interpretation of how Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the 19th century, more engaging programs were offered.  Hundreds of artifacts were chosen to fit out the dining rooms, parlors, and where appropriate, Christmas trees. Additional research was also done to lift-up the historic cooking programs and infuse a “living history” approach to the historic structures with the addition of period clothing. All this further supported the stories of the diversity of the American Christmas celebration. This work laid the foundation for the core content of Holiday Nights that we rely on today.

By the late 1990s, for a variety of reasons, the daytime visitation  to the Greenfield Village Holiday Program had begun to decline while the evening program attendance remained strong. Based on the inspiration and fond memories of the wonderful candle and lantern lit buildings decorated for the holidays, a new program was proposed to re-create that opportunity through the Educational Programs class offerings. Though on a very small scale that served less than 100 people, this program reminded us of what could be possible and got the creative process rolling.

THF144736Brochure, "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF144736

The Twelve Nights of Christmas, what would later be called Holiday Nights, debuted for the Christmas season of 2000. The daytime “Holiday” program remained in place, and the evening program was basically an evening version. This early version was very quiet, and very dark, as none of the village restoration had taken place yet. Most of the activities were based inside the buildings. Despite the slow start, the potential was fully realized, and creative and physical growth began. With the village closed for the holiday season of 2002  for the renovation, there was time to regroup, brainstorm, and make plans. The new and improved version for the “new” village in 2003 saw expanded outdoor activities, more music, and an ice rink that featured an artificial ice surface. Even with enhanced programming elements, the program was still not really filling the space as it could.

THF133593Musicians Performing at "Twelve Nights of Christmas" in Greenfield Village, 2003. THF133593

During these early years, it was apparent to the village programs team that to achieve the level of experience we were aspiring to, the event would need to be broken down into production areas, and each would need its own level of care and attention to detail. Decorating the village, designing and deploying the lighting, planning the historic food demonstrations, food sales and retail, staffing and training, musical and dramatic program casting and rehearsing, dressing an army of staff, firewood, lanterns, and communicating the entire thing, all was captured and pulled together with the Holiday Nights manual. This work became the go-to document for what needed to be done when and where, once preparation for the evening program began. This tool also became invaluable in planning and producing subsequent years of the program. So, as ideas came forth as to how to expand and improve the Holiday Nights guest experience, the program manual format made it possible to incorporate the new elements and move the experience forward.

A very memorable off site staff mini-retreat to a local book store cafe in 2004 laid the foundation for the program we know today. Building on the sound historical content of our village holiday celebration, our success with Holiday Nights thus far, along with a commitment from the institution, we created and refined the combination of guest experiences that today, makes Holiday Nights truly one of the nation’s greatest holiday experiences. The fireworks finale, the end of the evening procession and sing-a-long, a visit from Santa, a real ice skating rink, immersive food and drink stalls in the center of the Village, a greens market, storytellers, over 100 staff in period dress as well as a wide variety of additional dining experiences and top quality live music, has put Holiday Nights on the map over 20 seasons.


The program continues to grow and evolve. For my part, it’s been a privilege and source of pride to see how far we have come and how we have come together to achieve such greatness. I look forward to the road ahead and what the next 20 years may bring.

Inspired by the evolution of Holiday Nights? See it for yourself - limited tickets for 2019 remain.


Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford and Director of Greenfield Village.

by Jim Johnson, Greenfield Village, events, Holiday Nights, holidays, Christmas