Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Joyful New Year

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
When blood is nipt and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whoo! Tu-whit; tu-whoo!
-- Shakespeare

We are starting to develop quite a nice collection of 19th- and 20th-century greeting cards here at the Historical Society. This is one of the most elaborate. It measures five by seven inches, and is a double-sided card made up of two cards pasted back to back surrounded by silk fringe. The scenes are printed in beautiful detail using the color lithograph process; on one side is a Christmas greeting and on the other side is a New Year’s greeting. At the very bottom in letters too small to read without a magnifying glass is the name of the publisher: Wirths Bros. & Owen.

The Wirths brothers, Colvert and Robert, were engravers. In the 1850s they emigrated from Hanover, Germany to the United States. From the 1860s to the turn of the century the brothers designed and produced greeting cards, calendars, and small illustrated books. By the time this card was published in the 1880s, they had offices in New York at 12 Bond Street, and in London. Their cards, however, were printed in Germany. This was common for cards and postcards produced before the first World War, since German printing methods were considered far superior to American.

The Boston printer Louis Prang had introduced English-style Christmas cards to the United States in 1874, and the Wirths brothers began designing their own cards soon after. In the 1880s, Christmas cards were still a novelty, and each December the cards of the season were reviewed in popular magazines like The Literary World and Athenaeum. Wirths brothers’ painted satin cards and cards frosted with glitter were praised as “dainty and attractive” and “much superior to the common run.” Cassell’s Family Magazine admired their sunsets and snowy landscapes. And in 1887, the London magazine Punch confirmed the popularity of Wirths Brothers cards in its supposedly humorous verses on new Christmas products:

Wirths Brothers cards we like, and for this reason
They are in keeping with the Christmas season
Of Christmas Cards, you will ask, well, where on
Their point? Quite so, but here’s your money’s wirths.

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