American Antique Greeting Cards by Dr. Jann Haynes Gilmore
A book I wrote in 2007, Greetings From Delaware and Other Artist Communities, about American artists’ greeting cards began with this introduction: “Tattered edges and ink-smudged surfaces both humanize and glorify artists’ designs on greeting cards.” The book served as a catalogue for an exhibition of a collection of greeting cards (approximately 700) that had been assembled for over thirty years. The introduction continued: “These meaningful objects proudly display the signs of their popular use. Like today, the cards were sent amongst the holiday rush, stamped, delivered and eagerly ripped from their envelopes to be admired and shared.”
Greeting cards have been both hand-executed and often commercially printed from the artists’ created images. Women artists, by their nature, have captured the cherished notions of community, family, beauty, home, and hope at the holidays. The holiday tradition of expressing sentiments is as old as recorded history. In the age of electronic messaging, it is surprising to learn that 1.6 billion greeting cards were sent last year, according to the Greeting Card Association of America.
The exchange of greetings began with the passage of time, a change in season, or by commemorating an event, such as the winter solstice, All Hallows Day, or the birth of Christ. In pagan times, the Mesopotamians celebrated the feast of winter solstice with the increase of more daylight hours symbolizing the reawakening of nature. Egyptians gave scarabs worn as charms with New Years’ greetings. The Greeks sent greetings on scrolls. On the first day of the New Year in ancient Rome, households exchanged gifts. In the years of Reformation, the church tried to ban these secular celebrations, but they persisted. By the 18th century, religious holidays were officially placed on European calendars.
Modern holiday traditions evolved during the second half of the 19th century in England. Around solstice, mistletoe was hung; and Yule logs and wassail appeared as a toast to good health. Domestic scenes: doorway, hearth, candlelight, food, evergreens, red berries and the poinsettia have prevailed as imagery of home. Great Britain adopted the German tradition of Tannenbaum, the Christmas tree. The first Christmas card was designed by a British artist and printed in 1843 by the reformer, Sir Henry Cole, who also invented the postage stamp. Poet, Clement Clarke, introduced the jolly folk figure of St. Nicholas; and later Charles Dickens wrote his classic, A Christmas Carol in 1843.
The greeting card tradition crossed the Atlantic in the mid-19th century when Louis Prang settled in Boston and founded a small lithographic business where he printed cards in 1874. Prang gave prizes for card designs by such artists as Fidelia Bridges (1834-1924), a successful woman artist known for her nature paintings. Yes, Prang also introduced the metal watercolor sets that children and adults have used for more than a century; now collectibles. Later, A.M. Davis Company in Boston, The Gibson Art Company in Cincinnati, Paul Volland in Chicago, and in modern times, companies like Hallmark and American Greetings continue the tradition. By 1913, The Greeting Card Association was established in America.
In the 20th century, President Calvin Coolidge was the first president to send a Christmas message and inaugurated the national Christmas tree ceremony in 1927. Herbert and Lou Hoover loved historic prints and handed out reproductions at Christmas time. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt received over 33,000 cards from the American people and during WWII and Eleanor Roosevelt rescued the Christmas tree ceremony from wartime abandonment. President Roosevelt not only collected stamps but also greeting cards. President Eisenhower selected his own paintings to grace the covers of his and Mamie’s cards. Jackie Kennedy chose images of renovated White House rooms for the Kennedy administration’s short tenure. The Johnsons sent cards, quickly printed and sent, after Kennedy’s assassination. George and Laura Bush’s cards were postmarked from Crawford, Texas, emphasizing the importance they placed on home and family.
Another development uniquely aimed at artists began in New York in 1934 with the establishment of the American Artists Group to popularize contemporary American art during the Depression and to support artists’ original etchings, lithographs, drawings, and paintings. Women artists’ works were chosen to grace the covers of cards alongside men artists like Rockwell Kent.
The following cards by American women artists are from the Jann Haynes Gilmore and B. Joyce Puckett Collection of Artist Greeting Cards:
- Yoo Whoo Merry Christmas, Janet Laura [Scott] Berry (1888-1968) commercially- printed. Janet Scott Berry worked for Norcross, Volland, and Gibson printing companies. She was a prolific children’s book illustrator best known for her illustrations of Raggedy Ann. She and her artist husband, Carroll Thayer Berry lived in Maine.
- Christmas is Coming, Martha Malicoat Dunigan (1934-2002), block print. Born and raised in Provincetown, MA, she attended Oberlin College, Pratt Graphic Center, and Penland School of Crafts in NC where she also taught. Dunigan’s amusing image harks back to Pilgrim days on her native Cape Cod.
- Olive’s Greeting, Olive Rush (1873-1966) color block print. Born into a Hoosier Quaker family, Rush was a pacifist and social reformer all her artistic life. She was the first independent woman artist to join the Santa Fe art colony in 1920. Primarily a watercolorist, she set aside time each holiday season to execute a block print card.
- Greetings from the House of Weyhe, Victoria Hutson (1900-1971) lithograph,1931. From NJ, studied at the Art Students League and the NY School of Applied Design with John Sloan and Max Weber. A sculptor, painter, and printmaker, Hutson’s work were shown at the prestigious Weyhe Gallery for which she executed this lithograph for its holiday card in 1931.
- Winter Cat Nap, Gertrude Nason (1890-1965) color block print. Gertrude Nason, a native of MA studied at Boston art schools with Joseph DeCamp and Edmund Tarbell. She was an arts supervisor in MA schools. After marriage, she and her husband divided their time between Old Lyme, CT where she had a studio and NYC. She learned wood engraving from her noted printmaker brother, Thomas Nason.
- Christmas Shopping, Olga Sears (1906-1990) hand-colored block print, 1913. Sears was not only an artist but an interior decorator and display artist for Jordan Marsh Company in Boston. Late in life she designed greeting cards for private clients and sold her greeting cards in a card shop in Hyannis, MA. She kept a studio in Rockport, MA and later had her cards commercially printed from steel-die blocks which she hand-colored.
- Skiing, Wuanita Smith (1866-1959) color block print, 1939. Smith lived her entire life in Philadelphia where she was born. She studied with the illustrator, Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute, at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was a prolific illustrator and printmaker, cofounding the American Color Print Society. Often Smith gifted her color prints to friends at holidays inscribing them with seasonal messages.
- Glad Tidings, [Gabriel] Jacqueline Kennedy [Onassis] (1929-1994) commercially printed. As Honorary Co-Chairman of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, she used her own painting for this greeting card, signing it “JBK”. Printed by Hallmark for the benefit of the Kennedy Center, the card is undated and a boxed set sold for $4.00 at the time.
- The World is Going Straight to Pot, Mary Townsend Mason (1886-1964) commercially- printed. Mason divided her time between Philadelphia and Monhegan Island, ME. She dazzled her recipients with beautiful etched Christmas messages printed on white vellum with a red border. These greetings tell both global and personal stories from summers spent on an island, to life in the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, and to events of WWII. Her portrayal (both visual and written) of her life and family’s journey, presents a charming narrative.
Making your own greeting cards can be a cherished family legacy. Get busy women artists, only a few weeks remain!
Sandra Mason Dickson, Mary Townsend Mason: Yuletide Greetings: Reflecting an American Artist’s Era, J.S. McCarthy Printers, Augusta, ME, 2019.
Jann Haynes Gilmore, P.h.D., Greetings From Delaware and Other Artist Communities: The Jann Haynes Gilmore and B. Joyce Puckett Collection of Artist Greeting Cards, Biggs Museum of American Art, Dover, DE, 2002.
Jann Haynes Gilmore, “Artist Greeting Cards,” American Art Review, Volume XIX, No. 6, November-December 2007, pages 142-147.
Jean Moss and Thomas Leach, Gustave Bauman and Friends, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, NM, 2014.
I thank Maureen Rabinowitz for her enlightenment on Jewish family card-giving at religious holidays. While Hanukkah cards have appeared as a modern phenomenon, Rosh Hashanah is a prayer and spiritual holiday commanding more family preparation but greetings are not usually exchanged.
Mary Savig, Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th Century Artists: From the Collections of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2012.
Anna Schaverien, “One of the World’s First Printed Christmas Cards Goes on Display,” [Great Britain’s Charles Dickens Museum], New York Times, November 21, 2019.
Mary Evans Seeley, Season’s Greetings from the White House: The Collection of Presidential Christmas Cards, Messages, and Gifts, A Master Media Book, 1996.