The East Hampton Historical Society has among its collections several dozen scrapbook pages of Christmas and New Year’s postcards, including an album addressed to Miss Nettie Osborne of East Hampton, that are postmarked between 1905 and 1911 and exhibit a wide variety of seasonal images, though Santa Claus appears more often than not. (Little Miss Osborne can be found in Jeannette Edwards Rattray’s “East Hampton History and Genealogies.”)
Although it is believed that the first Christmas cards were a product of Dickensian-inspired Victorian sentimentality, the very first is said to have been produced in 1843 for someone who simply wanted to remind friends of those who were in need. By the 1870s, a good selection of Christmas cards became available. Louis Prang, a Boston publisher, printed five million of them in 1881. They were not cheap and they required an envelope.
The introduction of government-sponsored postal service changed all that because postcards, including those with holiday greetings, could be sent for a penny. As postal service efficiency increased, the price fell to half a penny.
It is believed that the first postcards were introduced at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Collectors call these cards the “pioneer era.” By 1898 the United States Postal Service had authorized printers to produce “private mailing cards” and they could devote the entire front of each card to artwork, while the back would show only the address. By the early 1900s, postcard collecting had become so popular that embossed album covers were designed for them.
The cards that Nettie Osborne received, and carefully stored in her album, are from what collectors refer to as the “undivided back era,” between 1901 and 1907. These cards have “post card” printed on the back and often have a blank space under the artwork for a short message.
There are also a few postcards in one of the society’s scrapbooks with a divided back, a design popular from 1907 to 1914. This gave the sender much-needed writing space. One card reads, “Dear Frank, I have just got out of school and want you to come Christmas Eve if you can. I have a week off school.” Since there were two mail deliveries a day during the week, this message got to Frank the day after it was sent.
As postcards began to disappear from use, collecting them became popular again, with the most sought after being those that were sent for Halloween and Christmas. Collectors tend to have specific interests, to gravitate toward the rarest images, and to ignore the most common. When it comes to Santa Clauses, collectors pay much more for Santas dressed in green or silver because obviously they were not as popular with the early-20th-century public.
These charming cards show us a happy season of plum puddings, finely sculpted snowmen, and Santas riding in early automobiles, talking on telephones and delivering Christmas trees. There are ringing bells, sprigs of holly, celestial angels, and even a nativity scene. But Grandmother must have known what really interested little Nettie Osborne because the cards she sent her granddaughter always show lots and lots of toys.