Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.
The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.
This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, alsodesigned by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.
The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.
Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas. THF170112
The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics. A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree. It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America. More than a million trees were sold during the decade. A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.
Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965. THF8379
A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved. The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns. But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical. It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.
The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree. THF309083
Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color.
The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960. THF125145
Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.) Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well. These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.
Holiday Greetings in the Mail
By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments. THF287028
By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!
Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082
Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.
This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath. THF287036
In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail.
Making a List
Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874
Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.
Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.
Toys for Girls and Boys Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.
Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962. THF135811
Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber. While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber. It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)
Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961. THF93827
The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it. Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television. (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)
This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota. THF170363
Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components.
Watching Christmas Specials on TV
Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965. THF162745
Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air. You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching! There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.
Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday. As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents. These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others.
Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics.
The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943
What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.
The Annual Christmas Photo
In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005
After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
There is no other day like Valentine’s Day. It is a day in which we are strongly encouraged—by tradition, by our peers, by merchandisers and greeting card manufacturers—to express our positive feelings for another person. Generally, these feelings relate to love, affection, friendship. Valentine’s Day cards are an easy way to communicate one’s feelings, preventing the sender from having to say these things in person. Often we find—in the plethora of cards available today ranging from humorous to “hot”—that the sentiment written in the card expresses exactly what we want to say better than if we’d said it in person.
Valentine’s Day cards have long served this purpose. During the late 1800s, most of these cards were frilly, draped with images of cherubs, birds, and flower garlands, and dripping with sweet sentimental verses. Intended to be sent to family members or sweethearts, these fit the moral tone and maudlin sentimentality of the era.
It’s February, and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, many people’s thoughts turn to expressions of undying love and devotion delivered via beautiful and touching cards. However, from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries, some cards took a different slant. Known commonly as “vinegar valentines,” these satirical cards delivered insults ranging from the mild to the extremely offensive. We’ve just digitized about 10 examples of vinegar valentines from our collection, including this highly unflattering rejection note. Watch for an upcoming post on our blog from curator Donna Braden for more information about this phenomenon, or peruse the digitized vinegar valentines now by visiting our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
We’re already missing the holidays here at The Henry Ford, and so have turned our thoughts to another upcoming occasion: Valentine’s Day. Curator of Photographs and Prints Cynthia Miller pored over our extensive collection of Valentine’s Day postcards and greeting cards, and selected a number that we’ve just digitized. One particularly interesting example is this card featuring a chubby-cheeked and large-hatted young suffragette. If you’re in the mood for love, visit our collections site to see more Valentines—or if you’re more interested in the political message than the romance, check out other objects from our collections related to women’s rights.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager
This time of year I feel so nostalgic about activities surrounding Valentine's Day! I fondly recall making cards for my mother on construction paper by coloring with crayons. Many looked a lot like this one in the museum's collections.
I also have many happy memories of exchanging cards with my classmates in elementary school, especially cutouts featuring kids or animals.
Valentine, "Bank of True Love," circa 1852. Richard Marsh of 374 Pearl St., New York City printed this Valentine in the form of a promissory note. It shows a view of lovers seated in a garden at the top and Cupid on the right with the text, "State of Matrimony." ID THF99107 / 89.0.540.683.
Cutout Valentine, "Radio Me and I'll Radio You," circa 1920. A mechanical card with moving arms and heads shows a girl and a boy with radio sets sending messages to each other. It is signed on the back, "Llewellynne From Aunt Ida." ID THF99109 / 89.72.1
Three-Dimensional Valentine, "To Greet My Love," circa 1910. Card opens out completely to form a tissue bell. It is signed on the back, "From Dufur to Eva Lena." ID THF99115 / 90.234.19.
This year I searched our collections for more selections of valentines and found some surprises. I happened to find several which struck me as a quite unique. One is designed to look like a promissory note, picture above, from a bank in the 1850s. Another is a cutout card featuring kids playing with radio equipment in the 1920s - then the latest technology! The third example is a card that folds out to form an elaborate 3D tissue bell.
Photographic print, Girls' Club Valentine Dance and Ford Plant Engineering Party, Dearborn, Michigan, February 14, 1947. Joseph Farkas was the Ford Motor Company photographer. ID THF99127 / P.833.83934.2.
Cabinet photograph, Cyclist Eugene Valentine with Bicycle and Medals, 1887. It was photographed by J. Wood of 208 Bowery, New York City. Signed on the back "Yours truly, Eugene Valentine, Dec 29, 1887." ID THF206673 / 188.8.131.52
Then I came across this photo of a Valentine's Day Party. It is identified as a Girls' Club Valentine Dance, but they look like ladies and a gentleman to me. The room is decorated with crepe paper streamers and a large heart-shaped doorway. The sign above the doorway reads, "Kiss Me!"
My searches also came up with a man named Eugene Valentine. Once I saw this I realized that Valentine is indeed a last name, not just a romantic holiday. The name is from the Latin "Valentinus" based on "valere," meaning to be strong. In the British Isles, it has been recorded from medieval times as a first and then a last name with many different spellings, including Valentyn, Vallentine, and Valentine.
I also found a business named Valentine-Souvenir Company of New York City. There are several dozen postcards made by this company in our collections, but not one is a Valentine card. It turns out this company was formed from several later mergers of the founding company started by John Valentine of Dundee, Scotland, in 1825. The original Valentine Company made lithograph prints before starting to produce postcards in 1896. From 1914 to 1923 the Valentine-Souvenir Company of New York City printed postcards using the letterpress halftone color printing process.
Postcard - "Band Stand over Lagoon, Belle Isle, Detroit, Mich.," circa 1915, Valentine-Souvenir Co. ID THF99105 / 184.108.40.206
I think that any search for Valentine's Day cards needs to include heart shapes as a design motif. In addition to the cards, I expected to find jewelry, dishes and quilts to have heart motifs, but here's something unexpected: a forerunner of the bicycle made with heart shapes cut out of the wooden wheels.
Velocipede, Draisine, attributed to a German maker, circa 1818. German Baron Karl von Drais invented the Draisine in 1817. Operators of this human-powered vehicle sat astride the wooden rail and pushed off with their feet. This early velocipede or hobby horse can be said to be the first bicycle. THF108100 / 32.161.1
Mother’s Day, a holiday devoted to honoring mothers, has its American origins in the years following the Civil War. To aid national healing in the wake of unprecedented personal loss, many women’s groups wanted to create a day focusing on peace and motherhood.
In 1914, a national campaign culminated in a federal proclamation officially designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. To mark this now-official holiday, many people began writing letters to their mothers. Soon, giving gifts of flowers and sending greeting cards became popular.
These examples of Mother’s Day greeting cards from The Henry Ford’s collection provide a charming glimpse into these celebrations over the past century.
Making handmade cards is a perennial favorite activity of children, and a Mother’s Day card made by a son or daughter remains a special gift. A child whose parents were first generation Polish-Americans created this card in 1942. A first grader at a Polish Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana, he decorated his card with a crayon drawing and the inscription “Droga Mamo.” He also used stickers and trimmed the edges in a scalloped pattern with a red ribbon holding the pages together. The inside pages contain a printed poem in Polish.
This 1960 card in many ways represents the typical sentiments we associate with Mother’s Day - gratitude for our mother’s loving care that we’ve received. The card’s image of a silver basket with flowers recognizes that flowers are a traditional gift for this holiday.
Husbands used cards like this one to honor their wives on Mother’s Day. They could also use it when their children were too young to give their mother a special card. The delicate visual image of the mother and the card shaped like a fan are evocative of the early to mid-1920s popular style in America.
This card for “My Other Mother” was sent in 1921 to Susana C. Cole, a 71-year-old widow who was living in Akron, Ohio, with her only daughter and son-in-law. Who was the Salt Lake City, Utah, sender of this card, then? Perhaps it was her son-in-law on a business trip or another relative - or even a former student, since Susana was a retired schoolteacher.
Other mysterious elements from this same correspondence are the singed edges of both the card and envelope - evidence that this early airmail letter encountered a dramatic fate on the way to its recipient: The U.S. Post Office message stamped on the envelope states that the letter was recovered from an airplane crash in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
This Mother’s Day card from about 1980 is anything but traditional - it’s printed on a brown paper bag! Informal and humorous, its modern theme may reflect its likely “Gen-X” givers - or their mother’s up-to-date attitude. The bright pink color of the text reflects the vivid colors popular in the late 20th century.
Have you ever given or received a memorable Mother's Day card? Tell us about it in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Cynthia R. Miller is former Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford.