Thanksgiving Cards — Sending a Message Since 1880s

By Robert Reed
 Happy Thanksgiving! A Thanksgiving wish and a great big Hi! For one who’s nicer than Punkin Pie. -1946 greeting card message
 Neatly folded greetings cards have been extending warm messages of Thanksgiving thoughts since the 1880s in the America.
For a time early in the 20th century they were overshadowed by the holiday postcard, but they regained the country’s affection decades later and enjoyed a ‘golden era’ of design and exchange from the 1920s through the 1940s.
 Most sources credit the legendary Louis Prang with marketing the first folded Thanksgiving greeting cards complete with their own envelope. Prang, a German immigrant, began printing greeting cards in the 1870s in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
 Initially Prang’s efforts centered on Christmas greeting cards which had been highly successful ten years earlier in England. To Prang’s credit every effort was made to transform the artist’s rendering onto a quality greeting card.
 By the 1880s the majority of Prang’s works still centered on Christmas, but he also had the wisdom of providing greeting cards for other holidays including New Year’s and Thanksgiving. One particular Thanksgiving card came folded like a square-shaped booklet and tied with tassels. It offered a line of verse from a popular poet at the time, John Greenleaf Whittier:
“God gives us with rugged soil the power to make Eden fair. And richer fruits to crown our toil. Than summer islands bear.”
 Prang’s greeting cards at that time were elaborate and expensive. Using numerous printing plates and a wide selections of inks, his costly manufacturing methods sometimes pushed the retail price of a single card to a dollar or more, a staggering price in the latter 19th century.
 By the 1890s other printers had taken up the cause and less elaborate and therefore less expensive greeting cards were available in the marketplace. The problem for American printers was that a vast majority of the finer and less costly greeting cards were being produced and printed in Germany.
 Early in the 1900s the economy of the single postcard dealt a major blow to the greeting card business. Americans could purchase a brightly colored and keenly lithographed postcard and mail Thanksgiving greetings for mere penny.
 Certainly there were Thanksgiving greeting cards braving the flood of postcards even as early as 1908. One example from that year was described as depicting a Thanksgiving turkey on the front and having an orange ribbon through its crisply folded center. The inside of the card was blank, allowing for a personal, hand-written message.
 Emerging from what could only be described as a greeting card lull, were champions of the process including Rust Craft Greeting, Gibson Art Company, Hallmark, and the hand-painted efforts by the Hall Brothers.
 The archives of the Hallmark company, some of the most noted facilities in the country, suggest that despite the efforts of many companies Thanksgiving greeting cards were not used extensively in the 20th century until the end of World War I around 1918.  Hallmark itself did not begin marketing of such Thanksgiving greeting cards until the early 1920s.
 In 1924 Hallmark offered a card bearing a white ribbon bow and “a Thanksgiving thought for Mother.” It depicted a blue-roofed cottage surrounded by trees and other foliage. Hallmark and Rust were leaders during the 1920s in developing specialized Thanksgiving greets which were specifically addressed to Mother or others in the immediate family.
 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s card makers chose basic symbols for their Thanksgiving efforts including the turkey, the pumpkin, vegetables and fruits of the harvest, images of home, and on occasion a Pilgrim in costume.
 Thanksgiving cards stretched to include a little humor during the war-tom days of the 1940s. A Hallmark example in 1945, was a dog perched next to the ‘Fridge’ and “getting down to cold turkey.” For the most part however they ranged from the fully somber to the folksy use of a word or two to complete a simple rhyme.
 Many were richly colored depictions of the horn-of-plenty (cornucopia), or of a pleasant looking turkey surrounded by pumpkins and autumn leaves. Lot of them managed to include a farm or a comfortable house. The idea of home at Thanksgiving had strong appeal to those who purchased cards. Later research by Hallmark indicated it was indeed a family-related holiday celebrated at home or in the home of other family or friends by 90 percent of Americans.
 There were innovations in design during that 1940s era which added to the cheerful appeal of such cards. Printing had improved, additionally there were “novelty trims”, cut-out effects, and gleaming foil under lays. Sears, Roebuck and Company advertised such greeting card features in the 1940s catalogs, plus the fact that “each card has its own matching envelope.”
 As early as the 1950s there was some written suggestions about collecting greeting cards of the past.
 Despite the American custom of saving greeting cards, noted William Bricker in the 1951 book The Complete Book of Collecting Hobbies, “eventually for lack of space they are thrown away.” Bricker went on however to offer that collectors could mount them in albums, “the same as snapshots or postcards,” or put them in a filing box.
 “Some shops carry old time greeting cards,” he added, “but your best bet is to read advertisements in one of the collector’s magazines.”
 Interest in Thanksgiving greeting cards continued to grow during the second half of the 20th century. Hallmark, and others, steadily increased their variety and the number of family relationships. Eventually Thanksgiving greetings were specifically directed to granddaughters, grandfather, and even niece and nephew. Further research by Hallmark revealed that 80 percent of  Thanksgiving cards were actually mailed, the highest percentage of any holiday.
 And collecting them continues to gain interest.
 “Children’s Thanksgiving cards are a bit more difficult to find,” notes Linda McPherson author of the newly published book, Collecting Vintage Children’s Greeting Cards (Collector Books).
 “That card with the big Tom Turkey can bring back memories of going to grandmother’s for Thanksgiving dinner,” McPherson adds. Or “the one with the pilgrim children may remind you of the part you played in your third grade Thanksgiving play.”

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