Santa 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
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.
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.
United States Post Office delivery trucks, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 1908. / THF700044
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.
Rural Free Delivery in a horse-drawn mail delivery wagon, 1895–1920. / THF143935
Christmas Postcard Greetings—Inexpensive and Colorful
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.
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.
This postcard combines holly with a snowy landscape. / THF6869
Postcards sporting images of Santa with reindeer, 1907–1910, and a child with toys, 1905–1910. / THF136481 and THF4503
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.
A child uses the telephone, rather than a letter, to communicate her wish list to Santa, 1907. / THF135741
Images of automobiles often appeared on Christmas cards of the era, 1907–1910 and 1910. / THF135814 and THF143923
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Karl Koehler is pictured in this advertisement piece from the early 1950s. / THF621157
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve been watching Season Three of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, you’ve already gotten to learn about artifacts from our collection that include the quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, the Herschell-Spillman carousel, and the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car. We’re always working far ahead on these stories, though, so we’re currently digitizing artifacts for upcoming stories.
One segment will feature Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson explaining the origins of air mail. While sending a letter or package overnight may seem mundane today, it was once new and exotic. Daring pilots captured public attention, as demonstrated by the 1930 publicationCouriers of the Clouds: The Romance of the Air Mail.
See more artifacts related to air mail by visiting our Digital Collections—and keep watching The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to learn more!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Because our collections are so vast and predate the computer age, we are always stumbling across interesting artifacts we weren’t expecting to find. We recently rediscovered a set of eight letters sent to writer Frank Dorrance Hopley from various notable personalities in 1921. Hopley hoped to write an article on the “most thrilling moment” in these men’s lives, and had asked them to share those stories. In the letter shown here, James W. Gerard, Ambassador to Germany during World War I, related that his moment was when “the German Kaiser shook his finger in my face”—a thrilling moment indeed. Unfortunately, many of the rest of the letters we located provide less thrilling—but perhaps more amusing—responses: former president William Taft noted his life had not been thrilling and he therefore could not single out any one moment, and Robert Lansing, Secretary of State during World War I, suggested his most thrilling moments were personal ones he did not care to reveal. Not surprisingly, we couldn’t turn up any evidence that Hopley’s article was ever completed. Visit our Digital Collections to read all the letters, including a momentous answer from Thomas Edison. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Leap year--when an extra day is added to the calendar as February 29--offered a special "opportunity" for women. In folk tradition, it was only then that women could propose marriage. Nowadays, marriage proposals are fair game for either gender. In the early 1900s, postcards like this one were an inexpensive and novel way to send colorful greetings to family and friends.
Dated 1908, this leap year postcard was sent in April of that year and created by the Paul C. Koeber company.
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.
Rediscovery with Ryan: Letter and Drawing by George Washington Carver
Sent to Henry Ford, 1941
One of the themes discussed during #MuseumWeek was that of architecture, challenging participants to “explore the history, architectural heritage, gardens and surroundings of museums” you have visited. Here at the The Henry Ford, our venues provide nearly unlimited potential for you to creatively capture our stunning grounds and architecture. I believe that this potential highlights the inspirational aspect of human creativity. The same creativity that resulted in our beautiful architecture and grounds, now inspires your own personal creativity when you visit. Whether you are trying to get that perfect picture of the village or you are simply sitting back and admiring the grandeur of the museum, it’s hard to ignore the fact that creativity is a key component in what The Henry Ford represents.
As custodians of American innovation, we are guardians of creativity. Inventiveness and innovation would not exist if it wasn’t for the creative spirit. So for this theme, I chose to talk about someone who is represented in our archives, on our beautiful grounds, and is also an ideal example of using that creative spirit: George Washington Carver.
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