What can Christmas cards tell us about material culture? A new exhibition and accompanying Yale book looks at American Christmas cards in the twentieth century, exploring their imagery, graphic forms, subject matter and significance, placing them firmly within historical context.
As Christmas draws near, many of us will be frantically writing out Christmas cards, in time for the final post deadline. It is a medium of communication that is in decline, yet the Christmas card still remains one of the defining objects of the festive season. Nowadays Christmas cards come in many shapes and sizes, and contain a wide variety of sentiment, from seasonal and religious sincerity, to kitsch irony and humourous ribaldry. But of course it wasn’t always this way.
Those interested in the history and development of Christmas cards will certainly be glad to hear that Yale has just been published a book on the subject, in conjunction with an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center. American Christmas Cards, 1900–1960 is the first exhibition to study the images on American Christmas cards of the twentieth century, and it serves as an introduction to a large artifactual and aesthetic field that until now has been largely unexplored.
The exhibition and accompanying book argue the central premise that examining the images on Christmas cards used in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the end of the 1950s enriches our understanding of not only the American Christmas but also significant aspects of American culture. Cards constitute a category of American material culture that is rich in documentary potential yet has been nearly invisible in the scholarly literature.
In recent years the genre has been in decline, as fewer people send cards, but the chief function—making contact with others—remains as critical as ever, although superseded by new methods of connection. It is now evident that the Christmas card was a culturally specific artifact, a very distinctive, even idiosyncratic way to express a fundamental and enduring human gesture within the commercial, materialistic, and rapidly changing society that was the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.
The exhibition at the Bard presents twenty of the most prominent classes of Christmas card imagery and introduces the viewer to a few other categories of cards determined by form or purpose. These classes include everything from candles and poinsettias to coaching and travel, the three kings, and visiting for the holidays.
The accompanying book American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960, edited by Kenneth L. Ames, has been conceived as a kind of field guide to American Christmas cards. After an introductory essay, each chapter is devoted to a single class of card and includes images, a timeline, and commentary. The images provide an overview of the genre, and the timelines identify concurrent events and phenomena that relate to the subject, while short essays explore possible lines of interpretation. The book’s brief conclusion summarizes patterns visible in the cards taken as a whole and invites reflection on Christmas cards as an art form of communication and communion.
American Christmas Cards, 1900 – 1960 is an introductory exploration of a subject that until now has been largely unexamined, even within the art world. Therefore, this volume and its 375 images will be of interest to students of graphics and American material culture and to all who are fascinated by the power of images and the appeal of Christmas. There is much within these covers to surprise and delight.
American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960 by Kenneth L. Ames is available now from Yale University Press.