An Irish-American Tradition Early 20th Century St. Patrick’s Day Postcards

stpatrick1By Roy Nuhn

Legend has it that many an Irishman, upon departing his native village to go to America, would pause for a second and tuck a bit of turf into his slender luggage. Thus, though in time he became an American citizen, a piece of his beloved Emerald Isle would always be near his heart.

This love for both the land of their birth and for their new homeland helps to explain the preponderance of Irish and American symbols found on greeting postcards published for St. Patrick’s Day a century ago.

Of the many holidays and celebrations we enjoy each year, only three – St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Columbus Day have origins in the arrival of a specific nationality to our shores.

The Irish, who came in large numbers to this country throughout the 19th century, early embraced March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, as their special day. It slowly became a wonderful blend of Irish pride and American patriotism, as the Irish love and appreciation of America counterbalanced the strong tug that the Emerald Isle exerted upon her former sons and daughter and their descendants.

The Irish, mainly Anglo-Irish and followers of the Anglican religion, were present in goodly numbers in pre-Revolutionary War days. Festivities on St. Patrick’s Day were being enjoyed as early as 1760 in New York City. The holiday was even celebrated by many officers and men of George Washington’s Colonial Army.

stpatrick3Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, waves of immigrants from Ireland came to this country year after year. The Irish became an important continual presence in this nation and contributed mightily to the proverbial melting pot.

Irish consciousness of their heritage was especially strong in the years between 1900 and 1920, the era that souvenir postcards were in their heyday.

Dozens of publishing companies, most of them in the U.S. and a few in England, were kept busy manufacturing St. Patrick’s Day greeting style postcards by the hundreds of thousands of copies.

International Art, located in New York City, had its resident chief artist, Ellen Clapsaddle, design more than 90 different cards for the holiday. International Art, along with the firms of John Winsch Co. and Fred Lounsury Co., were among the most active American publishers.

The leading producer, however, for the American market was Raphael Tuck & Sons, of London, England. Tuck was the world’s largest postcard printer and creator of some of the loveliest and most heartwarming ever made.

They were responsible for at least a dozen different sets of cards for St. Patrick’s Day.

All were sold exclusively through their New York City branch. Sets has from six to twelve cards each and illustrations consisted of Irish couples, harps, flags, great Irishmen, St. Pat himself, pretty colleens, castles and lots of shamrocks and shillelaghs.

Nostalgia was the prevailing theme on nearly all of them, though comedy, romance and even Irish-American patriotism crept in at times.

Collectors today find old St. Patrick’s Day postcards interesting relics of a bygone era. Some collectors specialize, with interest strong for such categories as artists, a specific publisher, patriotism and novelties.

Another category is transportation and this has become increasingly popular as of late. A wide range of postcards shows Irish lads and lasses with a wonderful assortment of vehicles. The most common are scenes of carts being pulled by all sorts of animals. The list includes donkeys, horses, and goats.

Long a favorite with collectors, postcards with artwork by Ellen Clapsaddle are delightful and winsome. Part of her fabulous output for the holiday were some that fit nicely into the transportation theme. These depicted families off on crazy romps in automobiles or through the skies in dirigibles.

Bi-planes, the wonder of the age, pop up occasionally on all types of greeting cards and those for St. Patrick’s Day are no exception. One of the most interesting shows a glider-like aircraft approaching New York City. Made by Tuck it is captioned “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes.”

When the “Golden Age” of picture postcards came to an end in 1914, nearly all of the presses stopped and few holiday-themed cards were produced until more recent times. Old stocks remained in the nation’s five-and-dime stores for another decade and it is possible to find postcards with later postmarks.

In 1985 the Irish Post Office produced a set of 10 postcards for the holiday. These were sent to a large number of American collectors who were invited to address them to friends and relatives, and return them, with proper payment, for mailing, with special holiday postmarks, from Dublin.

In many ways, the postcards of St. Patrick’s Day are both a celebration of turn-of-the-century Irish-American traditions and a toast to the United States. They help us to recapture the St. Patrick Days of so long ago. Such are some of the reasons they are so collectable today.


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