My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, passed away when I was 11 years old. As we cleaned out her house in rural Missouri, there was something special waiting: two boxes brimming with postcards — variously embossed, gilded, tinseled, and extravagantly colored. They were greetings for birthdays and anniversaries, tokens of affection and romantic overture, and happy returns for every holiday on the calendar. Christmas, especially.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my great-grandmother’s collection would give me a window into the desires — and anxieties — of a world I would only later come to understand and appreciate as I pursued my doctorate in American history. It turns out there was a good reason my ancestor had piles of these rectangular cardboard artifacts. For a few years in the early 20th century, postcards were a massive phenomenon. Billions flowed through the mail, and billions more were bought and put into albums and boxes. And amid that prodigious output, holiday postcards were one of the most popular types, with Christmas reigning supreme.
The practice of sending Christmas cards predated the broader postcard craze by several decades, largely thanks to the efforts of Louis Prang. Prang was a savvy printing entrepreneur who kept adding products and lithographic techniques to his ever-expanding business, including the introduction of Christmas greeting cards (perhaps at his wife’s suggestion) in 1875. By the 1880s, he was publishing more than 5 million holiday cards each year.
For a few short years between 1907 and 1910, Christmas postcards created a visual conversation among Americans that was unique because it was also very public. They were in many ways a forerunner of today’s impulse to post selfies and holiday pictures on social media. A postcard was always on display — from the rack in the drugstore to its final destination. And those billions of snowy landscapes and bag-toting Santas churning through the mail system revealed much of what was on people’s minds at the height of the Progressive Era.
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Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe had long been part of the Christmas tradition, with young men using sprigs to demand a kiss. Yet this was an era when women were asking serious questions about their rights and questioning the assumed passivity of their lives in everything from courtship to work. This is why many postcards feature a woman who has control of the mistletoe as part of her new right to take the initiative.
Rural landscapes are another good example. A Christmas greeting of the sort that features a little snow-covered house in the countryside had been around since before the Civil War. Still, rural America was far from a contented place in the first decade of the 20th century. The census of 1910 marked the last with a majority-rural American population.
When times seemed tough, all those picture-perfect fields, barns, fences, and country homes became a way to create an alternative narrative — one that was beautiful, healthy and prosperous. Like those staged family photographs for Christmas cards, or for today’s Facebook postings, those visuals are not just representing you but a perfected version of you.
These were also the years when the United States saw the peak of European immigration, particularly immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations. Partly as a reaction to this inflow, and its surrounding anxieties, people were eager to emphasize their longstanding roots in the country. Manifestations of this urge to claim native roots pop up in the period’s genealogical societies, colonial revival movements, and yes, holidays. An “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a phrase that appears with increasing regularity through the first two decades of the 20th century.
Like so many others who gravitated to postcards with an almost forceful passion, my great-grandmother was a young rural girl from a long line of rural Americans who saw the world changing quickly. Postcards were a way of dealing with those changes, some welcome I’m sure, and many not.