Sending greeting cards during the holiday season has been a western tradition since the mid-nineteenth century. First popular in England, mass-produced greeting cards began being printed in the United States in 1875. By 1881 one American greeting card printer, Louis Prang, was printing over five million cards a year. Between 1880 and 1890 Prang cards were a wonder, a fad, a must-have of the American Christmas. Prang’s greeting cards featured typical heart-warming holiday themes such as snow scenes, fir trees, glowing fireplaces, and children playing with toys. More humorous cards and cards with alternative themes – generally studio cards – were popular in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.
The PMH Archives has a collection of remarkable studio art greeting cards, which were donated to the Museum by California art historian Nancy Dustin Wall Moure. When viewing the cards, one can see the influences of centuries of art history – elements of the Byzantine Empire’s religious iconography, Renaissance Italy’s aesthetics, Picasso’s surrealism, California’s early impressionism, and so much more. These cards were all done by local artists over a relatively short period, yet the collection is incredibly diverse and each card unique. One look at these cards and it is clear that they are nothing like what you’d find in the Hallmark store.
These cards force one to ponder what they are not saying, at least not directly. A card may say “Merry Christmas,” but why is the rather hostile Madonna keeping the viewer at arm’s length? And what exactly is an “unfiltered” Christmas? There is an enjoyable irony to many of these cards. Many do not try to be sappy or sweet. In fact, they completely reject the greeting card industry concept of mass-produced sentiment. Ironically, their sardonic words are what make these cards charming. Yet, others clearly embrace the spirit of the holidays with whimsical images and breathtaking outdoor landscapes. These cards offer insight into not only Pasadena’s artistic influences, but also Pasadena’s transition into the postmodern world.
The cards in this collection date from the 1930s to the 1960s. The most popular medium at the time was linoleum block, however there are several prints, etchings, and even watercolors in the collection. This is probably because none of the artists were exclusively card makers, and they all worked in a variety of mediums. Among the thirty artists represented in the collection, there are painters, sculptors, block printers, etchers, lithographers, muralists, and illustrators. Some of the Pasadena artists whose cards are in the collection include Frank Tolles Chamberlin, Frode Dann, Ernest Freed, Franz Geritz, Ejnar Hansen, Joseph Mugnaini, and E. Roscoe Shrader. There are also twenty-five cards by Anne Knowles, who may have originally accumulated the collection. Many of the artists studied or taught at one time at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Mugnaini, who is famous for working with author Ray Bradbury, attended Otis in the early 1940s and taught at the school until 1976 after returning from WWII. Some of the artists were also associated with Pasadena’s Stickney School of Art.
Historians point to “Christmas pieces,” or curlicued handwriting samplers sent by 18th century English schoolchildren to demonstrate their aptitude, as the forerunners of the handmade Christmas card. While mass-produced greeting cards are commonly used today, scrapbooking and rubber stamping has greatly expanded the concept of home crafted greeting cards beyond the realm of schoolchildren’s cards, with adults and accomplished artists sharing their greetings in personal artistic expressions. Perhaps these studio art greeting cards will inspire you to get creative this holiday season.
The entire collection of studio art greeting cards is available for public viewing in the PMH Research Library and Archives.
– Michelle L. Turner
This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of The Quarterly.