100 years of greeting cards reveals much about America

The collection at Winterthur has more than 250,000 examples of color printing on paper, such as these Penn golfers in 1903.
The collection at Winterthur has more than 250,000 examples of color printing on paper, such as these Penn golfers in 1903.
Posted: March 02, 2013

Some pieces of paper are called "ephemera" for a reason.

Derived from Greek, the word literally means "to last a day," and so it was supposed to be with greeting cards, fliers, bulletins, and cigar labels.

Not only have those one-timers surprisingly survived the ravages of time - and annual housecleanings - but they also offer some of the most telling glimpses of daily life in past eras, giving insight into fashion trends, marketing practices, domestic life, childhood pastimes, changing views about gender, even the rise of team sports.

When Winterthur opens today for the 2013 season, one of the most significant collections of chromolithographic printed items in North America will be housed in the archives of the Wilmington museum's research library - more than 250,000 examples of vivid commercial color printing dating from 1820 to 1920.

The recent acquisition - formed by John and Carolyn Grossman, former owners of a giftware and licensing company - documents 100 years of American life with calendars and invitations, tickets and trading cards.

"Scraps" are also included, what was used to make home decorations or paste into leather scrapbooks. Creating the prettiest pages was a passionate hobby, providing an outlet for personal interests and artistic abilities - perhaps a Victorian predecessor to Facebook and Pinterest.

There is also a large selection of inventive promotional fliers and labels that heralded the creation of the modern advertising industry. Artists labored behind the scenes to create glowing images that would sell fruit, medicine, or cigars.

The printed images also track the evolution of fashion, and with it, women's changing roles in family and business life.

In a 1903 image of a University of Pennsylvania women's golf team, players still drive the ball wearing long skirts, but pants soon became the preferred garment for vigorous exercise - as shown in later images.

Around the turn of the century, sports figures began to show up not only in advertisements but on collectible trading cards. It meant that fans could afford to own inexpensive color portraits of their favorite players - before color photography.

"Chromolithography really started it," says Winterthur library director E. Richard McKinstry of the color printing process. "The images are incredibly vivid, and in the Grossman collection, they have remained vivid - they haven't lost their luster over time."

Chromolithography was invented in Germany in the first half of the 19th century and, after improvements by inventors across Europe, came into widespread commercial use by the 1860s. The process began with a watercolor artist's sketch, which was transferred by lithographers to multiple limestone printing plates, each of which was used to apply a different color to the paper until the scene was complete.

The greatest strength of the collection, McKinstry says, is the diversity of examples. "There's a wonderful collection of [American printer] Louis Prang cards, for example, trade cards, postcards, children's games, children's literature."

McKinstry has his own favorites: As a baseball fan, he created a display using images of players on cards, cigar labels, and Sunday supplements from around 1900. "One supplement encouraged children to cut out the images to create their own stadium filled with players."

The collection had previously been on loan to the museum since 2008 and became the focus of special projects by several students in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. One studied the numerous colored calendars, while another explored representations of women on cigar-label art.

The Grossmans were not only collectors but also experts in the field. John Grossman wrote several books, including Labeling America: Cigar Box Designs as Reflections of Popular Culture, which explores the legacy of lithographer George Schlegel, and Joy to the World: A Victorian Christmas with Cynthia Hart.

The collection features the first commercially produced Christmas card, commissioned in England in 1843, and an early American Christmas card from about 1850. Their impact was significant: The introduction of commercial greeting cards meant holidays were more widely celebrated. Today Americans buy more than 1.6 billion Christmas cards each year.

For a complete calendar of events and exhibitions at Winterthur, go to www.winterthur.org.

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