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In preparing for our temporary exhibit Light and Joy in the Holiday Season, The Henry Ford’s curators solicited artifacts, photographs, and stories from The Henry Ford’s staff, among others. Below is one of the stories that was shared for the New Year display case.

Red dishware containing a soup with greens and veggie bacon, with cornbread on the side, a flute filled with liquid, and a holiday centerpiece with candles, ornaments, and garland
My personal, vegetarian version of hoppin’ john, a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal, in 2013. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

Though I’ve now lived in metro Detroit for more than two decades, I spent my formative years in the South, growing up in Jacksonville, Florida—the largest city (in terms of square footage) in the contiguous United States, an area split by one of the few rivers in the country that flows north (the St. John’s), and the hometown of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Neither of my parents were born in Jacksonville. My dad grew up in Pennsylvania, and my mom on Lookout Mountain in the small town of Fort Payne, Alabama. During the Vietnam War, my dad was drafted into the military and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, to utilize his newly minted bachelor’s degree in architecture to work on base buildings. At that time, my mom was living in Anniston with her sister and her sister’s husband, who was also involved in architecture on the base. My parents met, secretly eloped, moved briefly to Pennsylvania after my dad was discharged, then moved to Jacksonville for a job opportunity for my dad just after I was born.

Being as close to Georgia as you can be and still be in Florida, Jacksonville is definitely the South—the “Bold New City of the South,” as police cars and road signs proclaimed. And Southern foodways predominated, even as economies and cultural traditions slowly became more global. My mother was a fantastic cook who combined her Alabama farm roots with Jacksonville’s traditions—I grew up eating fried okra, grits, redeye gravy, barbecue, boiled peanuts, greens, banana pudding, scuppernongs and muscadines, sweet tea, and pecan pie, and didn’t realize these things weren’t universally beloved, valued, or available until I moved to Michigan.

Collard green spines laying in sink, with leaves in a salad spinner next to them
Greens are a common food in the South. Here, collard greens are de-spined and washed for use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

One thing I don’t remember ever not having on New Year’s Day was hoppin’ john. The traditional version of the dish is black-eyed peas cooked in broth with onions and a bit of ham or pork, served over rice, often with greens and cornbread on the side. (We Southerners like our carbs.) I don’t know when or where my mother picked up the idea of serving hoppin’ john on New Year’s Day—one of my cousins did not know what hoppin’ john was when I asked her this year, so I am guessing it did not originate in Alabama. She may have learned about it from friends in Jacksonville who followed the tradition.

The reason this humble staple is eaten on New Year’s Day is for good luck—the greens are the color of money, the peas represent coins, and some people even say the color of the cornbread relates to gold. Some long-time family friends from Jacksonville still refer to their annual plate of hoppin’ john as their “luck and money.” But beyond that, it’s a cheap, filling, and delicious meal.

As near as I can recollect, my mom made it fairly traditionally. She might have thrown a hambone into the peas for extra flavor—at least, before I became vegetarian. After I became vegetarian, she would cook a tray of bacon separate from the peas, so that the meat-eaters in the family (e.g., everyone but me) could crumble some over to get their pork fix, while I could eat meat-free, or crumble on some vegetarian bacon.

Black-eyed peas soaking in water with a bit of froth at the top in a blue-and-white bowl, covered with plastic wrap
Soaking black-eyed peas to use in hoppin’ john, 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

When I moved to Michigan, I wanted to continue the tradition with a meat-free version, but also wanted to simplify preparation—cooking peas, rice, and greens all separately, along with cornbread, is a lot of work for one person, especially given that it is most delicious when it all gets mashed together on the plate in the end anyway.

My family tended to like our hoppin’ john peas on the soupy side—something in keeping with the Southern tradition of “pot likker,” where you eat the flavorful broth that forms when you cook vegetables in seasoned water. I also took inspiration from another simple dish my mother made often—“bean soup.” This was just dried beans (pretty much any kind) cooked with onions in broth until they were tender and beginning to fall apart. It might sound dull, but cooked slowly for a couple of hours, and finished with a substantial amount of butter…. Yum. Once it was clear a soup was the simplest way to go, it was a pretty easy logical next step to add the greens right into the soup, removing the hassle of cooking them separately.

Stovetop with two steaming stockpots filled with soup
Cooking a big batch (for eating and for freezing for later) of my version of hoppin’ john, 2015. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

Below is the recipe (insomuch as I have one) I came up with.


Vegetarian Hoppin’ John (Soup)


Ingredients:
1 lb. dried black-eyed peas
1-2 onions
1-2 bunches collard greens
Vegetable stock, broth, or bouillon
Butter
Vegetarian bacon (I use MorningStar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips)

Preparation:

Pick through the dried black-eyed peas carefully, discarding any brown ones and any stray pebbles. (In my experience, every bag of dried peas contains at least one rock. Though picking through them is tedious, it’s far better to find the pebble(s) with your fingers than your teeth.) Rinse the peas in a strainer, then add them to a large bowl and cover them with a lot of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or foil and let the peas soak overnight. They will grow in size substantially, maybe double.

When you’re ready to make the soup the next day, drain the peas, discarding the soaking water, and rinse them again.

Chop the onions and sauté them in a stockpot in some of the butter until partially softened, then add veggie stock and the soaked peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the peas are nearly soft, stirring from time to time, usually one to two hours.

While the peas are cooking, de-spine, wash, and chop the collard greens into bite-sized pieces. When the peas are about half to three-quarters cooked, add the greens to the stockpot, and continue cooking until they are tender. Add additional butter to the soup to taste. (You could also add salt/pepper if desired, but usually the vegetable broth adds plenty of both.)

Cook the veggie bacon according to package directions. Serve up the soup, and crumble a strip or two of veggie bacon on each serving. Enjoy!



Bowl filled with soup and topped with vegetarian bacon; cornbread on side
The finished product, vegetarian hoppin’ john soup, in 2011. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

Cornbread on the side is pretty much required. My mom made her own dry mix, which she combined with milk, eggs, and (if vegetarians weren’t present) bacon grease to bake, but since I don’t have her recipe, I just (somewhat shamefully) use the one off the back of the Quaker cornmeal package—though I use less sugar, replace the cow’s milk with plant-based milk, and replace the oil with melted butter—so I guess I’ve modified that as well.

I always make a double batch of hoppin’ john and cornbread and stash the remainder in the freezer to get me through the rest of the cold Michigan winter. It just gets better as you reheat it and the flavors continue to meld.

Christmas lights on tree and porch in front of house in snow
Snowy Michigan on New Year’s Day, 2014. Hoppin’ john freezes really well so it’s wise to make enough to get you through a Michigan winter. / Photo courtesy Ellice Engdahl

Vegetarian hoppin’ john (soup) might not be the most common tradition, especially in Detroit—but it’s a sign of the times that you can find a vegan version today at Detroit Vegan Soul. But the most satisfying version is the one you make yourself—and make your own.


Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

home life, recipes, food, by Ellice Engdahl, Henry Ford Museum, holidays

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

Intricate gold frame with black-and-white image of three men in suits and hats holding lanterns and lunch pails For many 19th-century railroaders, holidays were workdays like any other. / THF286590


As we gather with family and friends to celebrate the holidays this year, many of us will enjoy a day (or several days) away from the job. But for our essential workers, time off may not be an option. For those who do the daily work that makes modern life possible, a holiday is just another day. In the mid-19th century, the railroader was America’s preeminent essential worker. (Don’t get me wrong—railroaders are still essential workers in the early 21st century, but their industry isn’t as prominent in today’s culture.) Trains had to roll, tracks had to be kept clear, and freight had to move—no matter what the calendar said.

Timetable with image of train and text showing train stops and times
The railroad’s timetable was gospel, holiday or not. / THF203346

Mainline railroading was a 24/7 operation. It was possible to shutter most operations at a roundhouse for a day, and railroads could cancel the local trains that served nearby industries, but longer-distance through freight and passenger trains had to keep moving. Stop a train somewhere and you block that track—and all the other trains that need to use it. Before long, the whole system grinds to a halt. (Today’s passenger airlines experience the same problem when bad weather shuts down a hub airport. Delays cascade throughout the entire network. But airlines can “reset” each night when far fewer flights operate. That’s an advantage railroads have never enjoyed.)

Conductors, engineers, fireman, brakemen, and others often spent their holidays either out on the line or bunking in a railroad dormitory far from home, waiting for their next run. And there might be miserable weather to contend with too. In northern states, December meant cold and snow. Consider the plight of a mid-19th-century brakeman. In the days before George Westinghouse’s air brake, the only way to stop a train was to manually set the individual handbrakes on each car. When the engineer gave the signal, brakemen had to scramble along the roofs of the railcars and spin the iron wheels that applied those brakes. It was a dangerous job in fair weather, but it could be deadly when ice and snow made everything slippery. On a windy night, a brakeman might be blown off into a snowbank below—where he hoped his crewmates noticed his absence before the train went too far.

Black-and-white image of two men, one shoveling coal into a large metal furnace and the other leaning out a window
The firebox kept a locomotive’s cab warm throughout the year—a decided advantage in winter. / THF286564

For the engineer and fireman in the locomotive cab, life was somewhat better. They stayed warm even through the coldest winter days due to the heat from the locomotive’s firebox. (There were surely more than a few enginemen who preferred the cold to sweltering summer days, when cab temperatures were hellish.) But there were still challenges. Snow and ice on the rails required extra skill to keep the locomotive’s wheels from spinning when climbing a long grade. Falling snow obscured the track ahead, making it difficult to see signal lights and lanterns—or an unexpected stopped train.

Interior of train car with wooden walls and ceiling and floral upholstered bench seats
Polished passenger cars were aesthetically pleasing. They were also highly combustible, should the coal stove (at lower left) tip over in an accident. / THF176785

Riders on passenger trains also stayed out of the weather, but even they had their struggles. Wooden passenger cars were drafty. In the mid-19th century, heat came from a single coal stove in each car. Inevitably, those seated far from the stove shivered, while those seated nearest to it sweated. Given that cars of this period were heavily varnished and trimmed with any number of flammable fabrics and surfaces, coal stoves also posed a serious fire hazard.

Two of America’s worst railroad disasters involved December fires. On December 18, 1867, an eastbound express train derailed while crossing a bridge near Angola, New York. The last car plummeted off the bridge and its stove came apart, scattering hot coals over the wreckage. Forty-nine people are believed to have died in the wreck—most of them burned in the resulting inferno. Newspapers referred to the carnage as the “Angola Horror.”

Nine years later, another bridge-fire accident occurred at Ashtabula, Ohio. On December 29, 1876, a faulty bridge collapsed under the Pacific Express as the train headed west. This time, 11 passenger cars fell into the chasm and an estimated 92 people lost their lives. Some were killed in the crash itself, but others succumbed to the fire ignited by spilled coals and fueled by wooden wreckage. The “Ashtabula Horror” exceeded that of Angola and would remain America’s deadliest railroad accident for more than 40 years.

Double image of a train on a track surrounded by snow with a number of people nearby
Clearing snow was the most backbreaking task on the railroad in winter. / THF120726

Trains didn’t go anywhere if the track was blocked, so in snowstorms track crews battled fiercely against falling and drifting snow to keep the way clear. Brute force and backbreaking effort were their best tools. Large plows, pushed by powerful locomotives, threw snow clear of the right-of-way. When the crew encountered a particularly deep or stubborn blockage, there was little choice but to back the plow up for some distance, then open the throttle and hit the drift hard and fast. With luck, the plow pushed through and continued on its way, or at least made a sizeable dent before another try. The worst-case scenario had the plow stuck so deep into a drift that it couldn’t be extracted. When that happened, crew members simply had to shovel it, however long it took. Powerful rotary plows—essentially, snowblowers for railroad track—made the job easier when they arrived in the 1880s, but these expensive machines were generally only used on mountain railroads in the American West.

By any measure, winter on the railroad was a miserable season.

Painting of train traveling through snowy mountains as a cowboy on a horse with a packhorse watches from atop a bluff
Artist (and automotive designer) Virgil Exner captured a more romantic vision of winter railroading in this painting from about 1970. / THF36304

Later in the 20th century, as working conditions and passenger safety improved, and as steel coaches and steam heat replaced wooden cars with coal stoves, the railroad found a happier place in our holiday culture. Trains became synonymous with trips back home to visit loved ones, and electric train sets became staples under the Christmas tree—whether as gifts or as decorations. More recently, popular movies like The Polar Express have continued the trend. It may be that there were no holidays on the railroad, but it’s equally true that our holidays wouldn’t be what they are today without it.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

holidays, trains, winter, travel, railroads, by Matt Anderson

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

Blue book cover with text and image of children in Halloween costumes in a pumpkin field, watching a dog dancing on a pumpkin

THF610382

For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts. And It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is one of my favorite animated holiday specials. Each year, I set aside time to relive the experiences of the Peanuts characters—and it doesn't grow old. Maybe because it first aired the year I started grade school, or because I also loved Halloween when I was growing up, my memories have kept It's the Great Pumpkin fresh and alive. It could also be the imaginative story, animation, and music encapsulated in a simple format that draws me back year after year, now that I am sadly well beyond the age of trick-or-treating. Or maybe it is a combination of all of these, the artistic creativity playing off deep-seated childhood memories, that makes me look forward to watching this animated classic every autumn.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, written by Charles Schulz, is a simple story of imagination, belief, and the joys of childhood. The main story centers on Linus, whose faith in and devotion to the Great Pumpkin reminds us of the fragile childhood innocence we all experienced—and hopefully still resides in us in some form. Within this larger story, Schulz weaves scenes reminiscent of his multi-framed comic strips. Each of these reminds us why we love his characters. The dismay of Linus at watching Lucy carve the pumpkin he brought home into a jack-o-lantern. The attempt by Charlie Brown to kick a football held by Lucy, who we all know will pull it away at the last minute. The help Snoopy gives to Charlie Brown with putting leaves in a pile. The eagerness of Linus to jump into that same pile of leaves—later philosophizing that he should not have done it holding a wet sucker. The joy of trick-or-treaters discovering what they got after dashing from house to house on Halloween night. Or the imagination of Snoopy concocting an epic battle with the Red Baron and his escape through no man's land. Childhood, even with its setbacks, never seemed better.

Cartoon drawing of children in Halloween costumes holding out bags at the door of a house
THF610396

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is masterfully animated by Bill Melendez. Melendez made Schulz's static comic strip characters move. And it is Melendez who made Snoopy fly. His color palette reminds me of the clear October days when I played in the backyard. And the backgrounds of blotchy blue and purple skies are reminiscent of those blustery Halloween nights when my cousins and I tromped through the neighborhood trick-or-treating.

Finally, where would the Peanuts gang be without the score by Vince Guaraldi? His somber, flute-accompanied themes instill a sense of eerie-ness as trick-or-treaters glide through the streets, Snoopy maneuvers through no man's land, and Linus waits in anticipation in the shadowed pumpkin patch.

Schulz, Melendez, and Guaraldi (along with producer Lee Mendelson) were the same talented team that helped make A Charlie Brown Christmas so successful the year before, 1965. Learn more about that Peanuts animated holiday classic in this 2015 blog post, Good Grief! "A Charlie Brown Christmas” Turns 50.


These colorful impressions, these musical moods, these familiar storylines—these snippets of autumnal life—still resonate with me 55 years after the program first aired.


Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. You will find him on Halloween night watching this animated classic on DVD before he heads out to wait for the Great Pumpkin in the sincerest pumpkin patch he can find. 

childhood, popular culture, holidays, TV, Halloween, by Andy Stupperich

Five-pointed star-shaped artwork with image of people and flags in center; also contains text
Artwork Used in a Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall in Bath, Maine, circa 1866 / THF119558


Following the end of the Civil War, numerous fraternal veterans’ societies were formed. These societies enabled veterans to socialize with individuals who had similar experiences and also allowed them to work towards similar goals.

Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson formed the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) for all honorably discharged Union veterans on April 6, 1866, in Decatur, Illinois, and it quickly grew to encompass ten states and the District of Columbia. The G.A.R.’s growth was astronomical, peaking in the 1890s with nearly 400,000 members spread out through almost 9,000 posts in all 50 states, as well as a few in Canada, one in Mexico, and one in Peru. These posts were organized into departments, which were typically divided by state, but could include multiple states depending on the population of Union veterans in the area.

Metal and fabric badge, with cross-shaped piece containing text underneath a fabric arch
Woman's Relief Corps (W.R.C.) Conductor Badge, 1883-1920 / THF254030

Metal (?) and fabric badge with red, white, and blue stripes and intertwined letters
Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War Membership Badge, circa 1900 / THF254033

The tenets of the G.A.R. were “Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty,” and are depicted in the seal of the G.A.R.  The fraternity aspect was met by fraternal gatherings such as meetings, as well as annual reunions known as encampments at the departmental and national level. Charity was demonstrated through fundraising for veterans’ issues, including welfare, medical assistance, and loans until work could be found, as well as opening soldiers’ and sailors’ homes and orphanages. Loyalty was demonstrated in several ways, including erecting monuments, preserving Civil War sites and relics, donating cannons and other relics to be displayed in parks and courthouses, and donating battle flags to museums. The G.A.R. was assisted in all of their work by their auxiliary organizations, known as the Allied Orders of the G.A.R.: the Women’s Relief Corps, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), the Auxiliary to the SUVCW, and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War—all of which are still active today.

Card with text, and two images of soldiers, one playing a bugle and the other a drum
THF623379

Additionally, the G.A.R. was instrumental in having the tradition of memorializing the dead and decorating their graves recognized as the federal holiday Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day. From its origins in smaller, localized observances throughout the country, it gained national recognition after Commander-in-Chief General John A. Logan issued a proclamation on May 30, 1868. Programs like the one above detail the order of events of these celebrations, and some even detail how to appropriately contribute.

Large group of men and women posed in front of a large wooden building
Members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Visiting Mount Vernon, September 21, 1892 / THF254036

The annual and national encampments were not just big events for the G.A.R. and the Allied Orders of the G.A.R, but also for the railroads and cities in which the encampments were held. Railroad companies, such as the Maine Central Railroad Company, advertised the encampments and offered round-trip tickets to attendees. A typical schedule of events for encampments included speeches, business meetings where delegates voted on resolutions and other organizational business, receptions for the G.A.R. and the Allied Orders, parades reminiscent of the Grand Review of the Armies following the end of the Civil War, campfire activities, concerts, outings to nature or historic points of interest, and reunions of other groups, including regimental and other veteran organizations. Attendees to the 1892 Washington, D.C., National Encampment were able to visit Mount Vernon.

Metal pin with gold laurel and silver letters "GAR"
THF254025

Badge with metal eagle and top and star with image and text at bottom; small U.S. flag in middle
THF254026

Members would show up in their uniforms, which often included hats with G.A.R. insignia, as well as their G.A.R. membership badge, an example of which can be seen above. Membership badges denoted the wearer’s rank at the time they mustered out and would also show what rank within the G.A.R. they held; Commander-in-Chief badges would be substantially more ornate.

In addition to their membership badges, attendees would also represent their home state, posts, or departments with ribbons or badges stating where they were from. An example is the Forsyth Post badge used at the 1908 Toledo, Ohio National Encampment. These ribbon badges are all unique to the host city—for instance, Detroit’s national encampments’ badges featured an image of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac sailing to Detroit, signifying the city’s founding in 1701; national encampments held in California typically featured a grizzly bear, like their state flag; Denver’s 1905 National Encampment featured a cowboy on a bucking bronco; and Holland, Michigan’s 1904 and 1910 Annual Encampments featured wooden shoes and windmills.

Blue ribbon containing text; topped with red, white, and blue ribbon with round metal piece containing text
THF254023

Red, white, and blue ribbon behind gold medallion with intricate pattern; also contains text
THF254031

Badges help tell the story of the G.A.R., and make these events more relatable to modern audiences—who hasn’t bought a souvenir on vacation or at an event? Beginning in 1882, The G.A.R. produced official souvenir badges for purchase in addition to the membership badges. Some of these souvenirs were made from captured Confederate cannons authorized for destruction by acts of Congress. In the case of the G.A.R., badges were so important that in the 50th Congress, 1st Session, a bill (Report No. 784) was passed to “prevent the unlawful wearing of the badge or insignia of the Grand Army of the Republic or other soldier organizations.”

Watching the highly decorated G.A.R. members march in the parade was a sight that drew many thousands of spectators wherever the encampments were held. The members would have likely marched in their G.A.R. uniforms, which included a double-breasted, dark blue coat with G.A.R. buttons and a hat (either kepi or slouch felt) with G.A.R. insignia. Other uniform pieces, such as leather gauntlets with G.A.R. insignia, are known to exist, but they do not appear to be commonplace. As they had done in the Grand Review of the Armies, they would march with their flags. In 2013, one such flag was conserved by The Henry Ford, as documented in this blog post: “Conserving a G.A.R. Parade Flag.”

Open city square containing large monument and many people gathered around
Grand Army of the Republic Parade at Campus Martius, Detroit, Michigan, 1881 / THF623825

As the G.A.R. members aged, the number capable of walking an entire parade route dwindled, but luckily for them, the rise of the automobile ensured that they could still participate. For veterans who did not take their personal automobiles to the encampments, calls were sent out to round up enough vehicles to provide each veteran with a car for the parade. In the case of the 1920 Indianapolis National Encampment, John B. Orman, Automobile Committee Chairman, sought to get enough automobiles for all of the veterans requiring them and said “The ‘boys’ of ’61 are no longer boys. Today the distance from the monument erected to their memory to Sixteenth Street is longer than the red road from Sumter to Appomattox.” Local dealerships loaned their cars for the parade, much like today’s parade sponsors sending cars or attaching their names to floats in parades.

At the 83rd and final G.A.R. National Encampment, held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1949, six of the last sixteen G.A.R. members not only made the trip to Indianapolis but were able to “march” in the final parade—thanks to the automobile.

Joseph Clovese, one of the six to have participated in the final parade, can be seen with fellow G.A.R. members adorned with their G.A.R. badges on his Find a Grave page. Clovese was born into slavery on a plantation at St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, in 1844. He joined the Union Army during the siege of Vicksburg as a drummer boy, and then later became an infantryman in the 2nd Missouri Colored Infantry Regiment (later the 65th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment). Following the war, Clovese worked on riverboats on the Mississippi River and assisted with the construction of the first telegraph line between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Clovese received a citation and medal at the “Blue and Gray” reunion, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. At age 104, he moved to Pontiac, Michigan, with his niece, and, according to his obituary in the New York Times, he would take daily walks and was hardly ever ill. He died July 13, 1951, in the Dearborn Veterans Hospital at the age of 107. More information about his long and fascinating life, as well as additional photos of him wearing his G.A.R. badges, can be seen in his Fold3 Gallery.

The G.A.R. officially dissolved in 1956 with the death of the last member, Albert Woolson, but the spirit of the organization lives on through the Allied Orders of the G.A.R.

For additional looks at the G.A.R., check out the other G.A.R. artifacts in our Digital Collections and read a past blog post, “Fraternity, Charity, Loyalty: Remembering the Grand Army of the Republic.”


Laura Myles is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.

philanthropy, holidays, Civil War, African American history, veterans, Grand Army of the Republic, by Laura Myles

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

As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.


Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.

Painting of memorial with image of George Washington in center, angel to one side and soldier weeping in front
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971

This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.

In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.

Oval-shaped painting of woman in white dress leaning on a memorial containing text
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513

Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Painting of four women in varying styles of white gowns, one holding flowers and one greenery
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522

The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.

Person in long black dress or gown leaning against a memorial containing text, next to a tree
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816

This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.

Painting of woman in gray dress leaning despondently on one of two memorials containing text
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259

The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.

Painting with urn shape containing text, surrounded by six white birds with yellow wings and vines
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542

The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.

By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts 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.

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