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Vintage Holiday Postcards

More than 1,800 vintage holiday postcards from the New York Public Library's Picture Collection themed around national celebrations of the United States: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday, among others. More personal commemorations are represented by over 200 birthday cards.

Collection Contents

A merry Christmas. Digital ID: 1585920 A Merry Christmas. Postcard. Illus. by Frances Brundage, 1912. Digital ID: 1585920

Collection History

Collecting postcards was a natural extension of the Picture Collection's mission to provide its users with visual material in a variety of formats. Postcards were circulated from at least the early 1920's and were likely housed with subject clippings files until later segregated into a separate collection. Acquisition has been mainly through donations from hobbyists and travelers, but the department has historically sought ways to harvest ephemeral material of this kind; librarians on foreign or domestic travels, for instance, are encouraged to buy and add postcards to the collection.

Background

Although the term "holiday postcards" might bring to mind mementos of foreign travel posted by people on vacation to friends and relatives at home, "postcard" here has little to do with documenting place and much more in common with the greeting card in its emphasis on the commemoration of events. Spanning from the 1870's through the first three decades of the 20th Century, this collection of postcards depicts a "landscape of the imagination" based on American national observances and holidays. Instead of buildings, monuments, or natural wonders, think Easter bunnies, Christmas trees and jack-o-lanterns, and red, white and blue bunting.

At the turn of the century, artists and illustrators desiring a decent living need only apply themselves to the design of postcards, which were enjoying a golden age since the first picture postcard in the United States appeared at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. Holidays aligned the interests of artists and postcard publishers precisely. With postage rates at a penny a card, the demand was insatiable. The Picture Collection's holdings from this period showcase the imaginations of the prolific Ellen Clapsaddle and children's book illustrators Frances Brundage and Maud Humphrey (the mother of Humphrey Bogart), among others. Colors extend past the palettes associated with contemporary holidays, and themes include technologies such as the airplane and the radio alongside animals, bells, children, dancing, dogs, and Egyptians. Decorative flourishes of feathers, glitter and ribbons frame messages in elegant Art Deco typographies. Practically every festive motif of the holiday calender is depicted here: idyllic winter scenes, Easter eggs, holly, decorative initials and borders, horseshoes, shamrocks, chicks, cupids, cherubs, four-leaf clovers, turkeys, and bushels of bouquets of posies.

Along with the holiday-themed artwork, the sentiments that went along with the occasion are often expressed in clever verse on the card. Perhaps more intriguing from a 21st century standpoint are the handwritten notes on the backs of the cards. Typically short expressions of goodwill to loved ones, postcard messages obviated the need for long letters or holiday visits, and in this respect they can be easily compared to contemporary methods of fast communication like e-mail and text messaging. Some industrious types illustrated their own holiday cards.

Though the demand for postcards in Victorian times was greatest in Great Britain and the United States, the best printers for this new reproductive technology were to be found in Germany. A fad for collecting as well as sending postcards developed, fostered by the firm of Raphael Tuck in Great Britain, who provided steady employment for artists and thereby became associated with strong design quality. In 1900, Raphael Tuck sponsored a competition, advertised on the backs of the packets of postcards published by them:

With a view of fostering the love of Art, and encouraging the collecting of artistic Post Cards, Prizes to the amount of £1,000 will be awarded to the Collectors of the largest number of "TUCK'S POST CARDS" that have passed through the post no matter to whom addressed.
- The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. Page 65.

The collection includes both cards published by Tuck, as well as cards printed in Germany.

The efforts of Tuck and others to encourage collecting as well as sending allowed us to amass a diverse collection representing more than a century of graphic styles and trends. Foreign-language cards form a small but notable subset of the collection. The Picture Collection holds an equally flavorful collection of holiday greeting cards dating from the 1930s through the present.

Related Resources

Miller, George, and Dorothy Miller. Picture postcards in the United States, 1893-1918. New York : New York, C. N. Potter; distributed by Crown, 1976.

NYPL. "Detroit Publishing Company postcards from the Leonard Lauder postcard collection." <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/?col_id=164>

_____. "Historical Postcards of New York City from the Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library" (Online Exhibit). <http://www.nypl.org/branch/central/mml/postcards/>

Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins. New York, Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Willoughby, Martin. A History of Postcards. London: Bracken Books, 1994.

Library Division(s)

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the vast collections of The New York Public Library, including drawings, illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.