Exhibitions at the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS), located in Worcester, Mass., and founded in 1812 by colonial printer Isaiah Thomas, has been a longtime institutional member of the ephemera society. Its collections are unparalleled for individuals interested in the history of American printing and culture in the United States. Two of its staff members, Marcus McCorison, president emeritus, and Georgia Barnhill, Andrew W. Mellon curator of graphic arts, have received the ephemera society's highest honor, the Maurice Rickards Award.

The antiquarian society's web site, located at http://www.americanantiquarian.org, contains three online exhibitions that should be of interest to ephemerists. The first is entitled "Christmas Through the Years," the second is called "Making Valentines: A Tradition in America," and the third is "A Woman's Work is Never Done." All are based in large measure on greeting cards, prints, and other forms of paper ephemera in the collections of the antiquarian society. They were mounted by Theresa Tremblay, curatorial assistant, and Caroline Stoffel, online services librarian.

"Christmas Through the Years," the AAS's first online exhibition, is a portion of a larger show assembled by Georgia Barnhill and originally on view at the society in 1990. It consists of five sections. "Origins of Celebrating Christmas" starts off with a discussion of Christmas celebration from the unenthusiastic Puritans, who ignored it, to the nineteenth century when the holiday became a time for family togetherness and the sending of Christmas cards. "Evolution of Santa Claus" traces how Santa looked from before the 1820s, when he was a slim figure, to the plump icon that we know so well today.

"'Twas the Night Before Christmas" focuses on A Visit from Saint Nicholas, by Clement C. Moore, the well known poem that contains a description of Santa Claus that illustrators have adopted over the years for their artwork. Sections on "Santa's Reindeer" and "The Traditional Christmas Tree" complete the exhibit.

"Making Valentines: A Tradition in America" was designed to show the development of the Valentine's Day card. It is drawn, in part, from a 1995 exhibition curated by antiquarian society staff member Audrey Zook.

The origins of Valentine's Day date back to the third century when a Roman priest named Valentinus was imprisoned for helping Christian martyrs. Just before he was to be beheaded, he wrote a farewell note to one of his friends, the daughter of his jailer, and signed it "From your Valentine." This was on February 14; the year has been lost to time. In England, celebrations associated with February 14 grew during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and colonists brought the gleeful customs with them to the Americas. At that time, expressions of affection on paper were handwritten, handmade, and mostly hand delivered.

Fast forwarding to the nineteenth century, printing advances as well as individual creativity changed the nature of Valentine's Day greetings. Worcester, Mass., became a center of Valentine card production, and Esther Howland, a native of Worcester, established one of the first commercial Valentine card businesses in the country in her hometown. The Whitney Company, also of Worcester and founded by George Whitney, followed suit, carrying Valentine card production well into the twentieth century, operating until 1942.

"Making Valentines" explains all of this and uses colorful images to illustrate its text. In addition to covering the origins of Valentines, their early development, and Esther Howland and George Whitney, the exhibition features a section called "Valentines in the Victorian Years." As the design of Valentines became more extravagant during this period, the simple beauty of earlier cards disappeared. Some were even made with cardboard rests so that they could be positioned upright for table display. Lace, satin fringe, and chromolithographs were used freely, and such novelties as mechanical pullouts were crafted.

During this time, Valentine card production became international. It was not uncommon to see cards from Germany and England, especially from Raphael Tuck & Sons, in the United States alongside Valentines by Louis Prang of Boston and Howland and Whitney of Worcester. Business was apparently good; many manufacturers enjoyed great commercial success with their Valentines.

The third online exhibit in the AAS series, "A Woman's Work is Never Done," just opened on September 19, 2001. It takes a look at women's work from before the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution, using selected images from the AAS's vast collection.

Georgia Barnhill looks forward to more online exhibits. "I like the idea of doing exhibitions that showcase a particular type of material here," she said. "I'm referring especially to collections such as menus, trade cards, rewards of merit, clipper ship cards, etc. These are colorful and small in scale so that they reproduce well and would serve as introductions to larger amounts of material."

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America