Patriotic Holidays Made Wonderful Postcards

By Robert Reed
 Displays of patriotism abounded in the United States long before the most timely arrival of holiday postcards on the American scene early in the 20th century. Yet the robust stars and stripes and all those related images just never looked better than they did in print on illustrated postcards.
 Within ten years of the ‘new’ century citizens were busy buying and mailing patriotic postcards of all types. Sometimes the images were of children decked out in clothing of red, white, and blue. Others featured lovely women in fashionable dresses, and soldiers in crisp military uniforms. Almost everyone of the patriotic postcards included a brightly-colored American flag to help set the stirring scene.
 Looking back in 1973, a leading publication on antiques and collectibles noted that as then this special group of postcards were known as “patriotics” among collectors. They were to be distinguished in part by their attention to such holidays as Decoration/Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day. Such cards of the immediate past, said the Antiques Journal, “depicted American customs and ways of life. Children were shown dressed in Buster Brown costumes or sailor attire….winsome girls wore long tresses” and mothers wore flowing dresses with picturesque hats and “bowed slippers” in Gibson girl style.  Moreover there was Miss Liberty, an attraction on many of the patriotic postcards, nearly always clad in white but often with a further touch of red and blue.
 If the striking images were not heartfelt enough, there was usually a message as well such as “when can their glory fade,” or “my country tis of thee.”
 As with other holiday postcards, a number of artists contributed their skills to the cause of patriotism. One of the most significant was Ellen Clapsaddle with sketches of children and adults all proclaiming the glory of Americanism. In time her postcard illustrations saluted everything from the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic to the Fourth of July itself. Most adored were those of children holding or waving U.S. Flags. Another strong contributor was C. Chapman whose Memorial Day illustrations were especially impressive.
 Among the leading publishers of patriotic postcards one of the most significant was the legendary Raphael Tuck Company (later Tuck and Sons) which literally had a worldwide audience.
 Tuck tended to single out American heroes of the past including General U.S. Grant. Typical Tuck published cards of patriotism also ranged from happy children to white-bearded veterans of the Civil War. Tuck, and a few other publishers, liked the patriotic holidays well enough to issue a number of series of postcards featuring historic or contemporary aspects of the events as they were viewed in the early 1900s.
 The Raphael Tuck Company for all of its worldly appeal (offices in New York, Berlin, and London) could not seem to solve the dilemma whether to regard May 30 as Decoration Day or Memorial Day. Actually Tuck and many other postcard publishers of the early 20th century used both designations at virtually the same time. Some issues were simply marked Decoration Day while others heralded Memorial Day instead.
 Most accounts indicate Decoration Day came first, linking it to a time during and immediately after the Civil War when southern women reportedly decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers. A few other accounts disagree on the origins of the event, but at any rate it was made official in 1868 when U.S. Army commander general John A. Logan decreed such a day:
“The day, for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, or hamlet church yard in the land…it is the purpose of the commander-in-chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept from year-to-year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of the departed.”
 By the early 1900s the legal holiday was mostly designated as Memorial Day and it was observed by law in most northern states. A Confederate Memorial Day was also legally observed in a number of states, while a few instead observed the birthday of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
 Despite the legal references, the confusion over the holiday’s official name continued. In 1917 author J. Walker McSpadden offered that the popular name of Decoration Day was “the better designation for this holiday. A Memorial Day could be kept without flowers; a decoration day cannot, and this is the day we offer flowers to our soldiers dead.” McSpadden may have had a good point, but later generations put aside the Decoration Day title almost entirely for the slightly newer indication of Memorial Day which likely indicates the American public’s tendency to celebrate the event more with parades and speeches rather than visiting graveyards.
 Flag Day had quite a different origin. As previously mentioned the American flag was a favorite subject of the United States postcard market from the beginning and that feeling, and its connected patriotism, just escalated immediately prior to World War I.
 The first official Flag Day was proclaimed in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson who specified it would be observed on June 30 of each year. Legend at the time said that seamstress Betsy Ross had helped direct the design of the American flag when General George Washington visited her at 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia. Washington and others, as the story goes, felt a six point star would be best on the flag while Ross held a five-point star would be less ‘English’ and therefore more American. Early postcards not only often featured the flag, but sometimes also called attention to the “Birthplace of Old Glory” at the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia.
 By the time of the World War in the 1940s there was great fervor of American patriotism and correspondingly the renewed use of the flag on numerous postcards. Today collections of such cards tend to expand to include the entire half century of their reign.
Accordingly Independence Day was a big attraction for celebrations and for holiday postcards during the first quarter of the 20th century.
 Typically Independence Day or Fourth of July postcard themes dealt with firecrackers exploding or at least about to set off and exploded. Sometimes they depicted colorful Uncle Sam, and sometimes they just featured children having fun on the Glorious Fourth. Certainly the postcard publishers of that era did not view children handling fireworks with the alarm that would be present today. Not only were fireworks quite legal a century ago, but they were quite abundant and readily distributed to youngsters.
 Early in the 20th century postcards were used to celebrate virtually all of America’s major holidays. Thousands of bright and colorful designs were created by the finest printers of the United States and Europe. Now, nearly a century later, these vintage patriotic postcards and other classic holiday postcards are considered highly collectible.
 More than 600 full-color examples are presented in the book Vintage Postcards for the Holidays. The book details the postcards and the holidays they represented including Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas (traditional and Santa issues), and New Year’s Day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *