Historic Chanukah & Christmas Postcards Spotlight Festive Traditions

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Reviving A Long-Lost Art Form

In 1873, the first American picture postcard was designed, and in the early 20th century, holiday traditions came alive through highly stylized hand-colored lithograph postcards.    

Deltiology is the collection and study of postcards, which derives from “deltion,” a Greek term for a writing tablet or letter. Therefore, a postcard collector is known as a deltiologist. Several decades ago, postcards could be found at a corner pharmacy, but today they can be purchased at postcard shows or on eBay. Amazingly, topics represent nearly every theme imaginable, capturing the history of hometowns and hobbies to holidays.

As a deltiologist, it is timely to explore the artistry and history associated with historic Chanukah and Christmas postcards. It may be surprising to find that few Chanukah postcards were published, which is a result of a relatively more recent tradition of mailing Chanukah cards versus Rosh Hashanah postcards. The majority of Chanukah postcards are from the 1940s and 1950s, published in response to WWII, but a few were published in the early 20th century. One standout was produced by USO (United Service Organizations), where the acronym was stamped on the back within a crest. The front features an illustrated menorah with dreidels in a subdued gold, navy blue, and white, which is associated with traditional colors of Judaism. The overall design is Art Nouveau.

The USO was founded on February 4, 1941 during WWII, with a mission to be the GI’s home away from home, and strengthen America’s military service members by maintaining their connection with family, home, and the country. Approximately 1.5 million people volunteered their service, and that included camp shows, where Hollywood stars joined USO entertainers. Today, the USO operates over 200 locations internationally in 14 countries and 27 states.

Another standout is a circa 1942 printed postcard featuring a photo of a girl holding onto her uniformed father, who served in WWII, and uniting to rejoice the miracle of Chanukah, as she looks into the light. The postcard features the eighth night, where he uses the Shamash (leading candle) to kindle the light upon all others. The front border and back is written in Hebrew, and the back notes the Jewish Soldiers Welfare Committee (founded 1917). The Hebrew translates as “Head of my right you lifted up, and the name of the enemy you obliterated.” The crest depicts a soldier with a Star of David, along with the Hebrew inscription, “The Yishuv (settlement) for the soldier.”

On May 11, 1918, The New York Times explained the organization’s role by enabling Jewish soldiers to have work opportunities. It read, “As the need to care for the physical and spiritual welfare of the Protestant and Roman Catholic troops was recognized by the Y.M.CA. and the Knights of Columbus, so many prominent Jews recognized that the same need existed in regard to the 60,000 Jews at present in the U.S. military service with the result that the Jewish Welfare Board was organized.” It also provided religious and recreational needs, and through community branches, furloughed soldiers and sailors received comfort. Today, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council honors the service of Jewish men and women of the U.S. armed forces builds upon the historic mission by safeguarding their rights and combating isolation.

Chanukah postcards occasionally feature very much true to life drawings by notable artists, keeping traditions alive. The University of Chicago Special Collection Research Center consists of circa 1901 to 1907 German postcards from the Harry B. and Branka J. Sondheim Jewish Heritage Collection. A series of 57 postcards features Hermann Junker’s illustrated scenes, such as “Chanucca: The lighting of the candles in the synagogue” and “Chanucca: The lighting of the candles in the family’s home.” Both establish a theme of unity and light in the synagogue, with G-D, and at home among a large multi-generational family that is playing festive games.

Christmas postcards, initially published in Germany and Holland prior to the trade coming to America, were produced in significantly large quantities. Novelty postcards are masters of engineering, as in hold-to-the-light (HTL) postcards that fulfill its function after nearly 120 years. A circa 1906 postcard features an elegant young woman extending her arms, as if to embrace her significant other in front of a Christmas tree. “A peaceful Christmas to you” is inscribed. A wooden chest contains ornaments that she is decorating her tree with. As it is held up to a light source, the entire card changes color, and the ornaments become most vibrant.   

Some early 20th century postcards were highly imaginative and celebrated the early years of technology. One case is a circa 1909 postcard, where Santa Claus delivered gifts not on a magic sleigh with eight flying reindeer, but by hopping out of an automobile with a basket. In 1866, just over a few decades prior, Karl Benz was accredited with inventing the motorwagen, a modern automobile that featured three wheels. Santa’s helpers seemingly take the form of a monkey donning a top hat and a wide-grinned clown with cymbals. A rocking horse, a doll, tennis racket, and a locomotive are among the gifts that children found most desirable.

This postcard is marked “Made in Germany” and features a circular SL & Co. logo that is surrounded by alligator wings. This postcard was published by Sigmund Langsdorf (1846 – 1926), a Battenfeld, Germany native who immigrated to America in 1862 and would become highly regarded as a manufacturer of fancy goods and novelties.

In January 1910, S. Langsdorf & Co. was newly situated at 13 – 17 Crosby Street in Manhattan and was a prized manufacturer of holiday goods. The firm was a recipient of a gold medal, the highest award of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. According to author Doug Alderson, the firm published 165 alligator border postcards, in addition to highlighting early street scenes, holiday postcards, and a State Girl series. Sigmund later resided at 325 West End Avenue.

J. Ottmann Lithographing Co. of New York produced an illustrated circa 1905 postcard of a family holding hands and cherishing holiday joy as they dance in a circle. Printed calligraphy transitions between Christmas and New Year’s, and also evident is how some postcards feature personal greetings in the front. The fine script from Aunt Bessie read: “What did Santa bring you? I shall be over to see you soon after New Year’s. Love to all.”

Jacob Ottmann (1849 – 1889), a native of Meisenheim, Prussia, immigrated to New York in 1863 and began his lithographic career in 1867. He founded Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann with his partners Vincent Mayer and August Merkel, and it was renamed in 1885, upon his partners’ retirement. The firm was the lithographer for “Puck,” the political humor magazine. Ottmann joined forces with the Puck publishers to erect Manhattan’s landmarked Puck Building, which became home to the largest lithographic printing press operation worldwide. The firm continued after his passing. Today, his great-niece Jacquelyn A. Ottman preserves his legacy.

Some hand-colored postcards capture landmarks of the era, where some are officially designated today. Pabst Harlem Music Hall & Restaurant at 243 West 124th Street opened in 1900 and became America’s largest restaurant, with 1,400 seats with a balcony under a huge barrel roof. A large, lavishly decorated Christmas tree extended the height.

Another Christmas postcard celebrates an architectural marvel, the Flatiron Building, architect Daniel Burnham’s Renaissance palazzo showcasing the Beaux-Arts style. Completed in 1902, it became one of Manhattan’s earliest and most uniquely shaped skyscrapers and the first steel skeleton structure. This postcard can also establish a timeframe of its publication, since the adjacent Fifth Avenue Hotel stood from 1859 until 1908. It became the social, cultural, and political center of elite New York, so the recipient may wonder, “What better way to spend Christmas?” This postcard uniquely features a postcard within a postcard, where holly and pine cones add a backdrop of gracefulness to the scene.

Victorian Children dressed in elegant traditional attire and having the time of their life, can be found on early 20th century postcards. A standout is a circa 1914 artist signed postcard by Newark, New Jersey native Frances Brundage (1854 – 1937), where a boy and girl are dancing under the mistletoe. She was an acclaimed American illustrator, specializing in depicting children on postcards, calendars, and ephemera published by Saalfield Publishing, the foremost Raphael Tuck & Sons, and Samuel Gabriel Company. She also illustrated numerous books for firms including Fiske & Company and Stecher Lithographic Company.  

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