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.
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
"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.
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