Exploring & Preserving Family History with Christmas Cards

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the history of Christmas cards, illustrating her article with vintage Christmas cards from her own collection.

What’s your favorite part of the holiday season? The decorations? The food? Time with family? I must confess that my favorite part is giving and receiving Christmas cards. I know that sounds odd but I really enjoy Christmas cards. I love simple ones made at home, those bought from the store, and even the lengthy family letters full of boasting and news. The ones that include photos are always a favorite because you can see how families have changed over the years.

a vintage Christmas card

Who Invented the Christmas Card?

The first Christmas card was designed by J. C. Horsley in 1843 England at the request of his friend Henry Cole, who wanted an easy way to send out greetings to his family and friends.* A card from that first set just sold at auction for nearly $7,000. Whether you currently send a photo card, a handmade card, a custom-designed card, or one you picked up at a discount retailer, Christmas cards have long been a way to keep in touch with family and friends during the holiday season. In some cases they have also been something to collect; one of the most famous collections was assembled by Queen Mary and is now housed at the British Museum.

a vintage Christmas card

Christmas Card History in Newspapers

You can learn about the history of Christmas cards by searching through old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Consider this newspaper article instructing readers to order their Christmas cards in November. While we are accustomed to holiday cards with either religious or seasonal designs (such as snowmen or Santa Claus), this was not always the case with Christmas cards. This article gives ideas for card designs including a “sketch made of an attractive nook in your house or garden.” The article’s author says that Christmas cards will be more popular in that year (1917) than ever before because of WWI: “…for many of us will wish to send this slight remembrance to the men who have gone to France or to the training camps, and many of us will wish to remember the families of the same men to at least this extent.”

Order Your Christmas Cards, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 8 November 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 8 November 1917, page 9

a vintage Christmas card

Christmas Card Design

Many people have an opinion about Christmas cards. Some people only like the ones depicting religious themes; others prefer ones that include an annual letter or photo. Even the generations prior to us had their preferences. Maybe you feel the same as Betty Bellaire who remarks in her 1919 article that, while she loves Christmas cards of all kinds, she doesn’t like to receive ones where “the sender has not taken the trouble to write a single word of personal greeting.” I too believe in the importance of those added personal greetings and agree with her that Christmas cards are a “mental reunion with that big circle of friends whom one meets, enjoys and then, through forces of inevitable circumstance, loses touch with as one is swept along through the various phases of one’s life.” It would seem that even our ancestors felt the constraints and stresses of time.

A Few Words on Christmas Cards, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 24 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 24 December 1919, page 12

a vintage Christmas card

Genealogy Tip: Save Your Family’s Christmas Cards

In January when the Yule time decorations seem to show their age, what do you do with your holiday cards? One thing to consider is to save them to preserve the signatures for future family history. Those signatures and comments may have some meaning for your family as people age and families change. You could also take some of the suggestions in this 1914 newspaper article, such as: making bookmarks, creating wallpaper, or sending them to a charity that reuses them for craft projects. In this article, Booker T. Washington recommends sending the cards to Southern schools, hospitals and homes. A quick search on the Internet may help you to find other modern-day charities that would welcome your cards.

Ways to Use Christmas Cards Suggested, Oregonian newspaper article 11 January 1914

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 January 1914, page 6

Happy Holidays!

[Editor’s note: the vintage Christmas cards illustrating this article are all from the author’s collection.]

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* Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. London: Spring Books. 1965.

Ephemera: A Surprisingly Fertile Genealogical Resource

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about an unusual—but a personal favorite—source of family history information: ephemera.

As I research my family history I look forward to finding unusual sources that reveal different aspects of my ancestor’s life beyond what an online index provides. One unusual source I find myself searching for is ephemera. In fact, I LOVE ephemera.

What’s ephemera you ask? Well one of the official definitions is “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles” (from Miriam Webster). At first glance that may seem to refer to only a few items but, according to the Ephemera Society of America, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists 500 categories of ephemera. Vintage ephemera can provide details of your ancestor’s life, even vital record information, or a specific place and time for them.

ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation

Ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation. From the author’s collection.

In genealogical terms it can include everything from your grandparents’ World War II ration books, a Christmas card your great-grandparents sent out, newspaper clippings of obituaries and marriage announcements, to the letters your 4th great-grandfather wrote from the battlefield during the Civil War. But it’s even more than that. In some cases it may be tidbits that provide social history information like a World War I recruitment poster or a menu from the first restaurant in your hometown.

ephemera example: restaurant menu

Ephemera example: restaurant menu. From the author’s collection.

Not everyone fully embraces ephemera in genealogical research. Why? These types of historical records can be difficult to find. In searching for ephemera that has your ancestor’s name on it you will need to start with home sources. When I refer to a home source, I’m not just suggesting looking for items in your home. Ask your family members about any types of items they may have inherited. In some cases family members may not realize what genealogical treasures they have. It might take several discussions where you reminisce or conduct an interview before they remember some of the items they have been holding on to.

I recently blogged about a letter I found in my childhood stamp collection that was given to me by my maternal grandmother. She had given me the letter to keep because of its interesting stamp. As I read this long-forgotten letter, I realized it contained important genealogical information from her own research on an English family line from the 1800s.

Cast your genealogical fishing line far and wide, and reach out to a distant unknown cousin who may have an heirloom or a forgotten item in their home. Utilizing social media can help get the word out about your research. Consider using a blog, website, Twitter or Facebook as just some of the ways to help other researchers find you.

ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure

Ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure. From the author’s collection.

Ephemera can also be found in collections housed at archives, libraries, societies and museums. One way to find these types of historical collections is to search either the repository’s catalog or a union catalog (one that includes multiple repositories), such as ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). When researching collections, search on the place your ancestor was from to find materials that might have originated with an acquaintance or neighbor. Also consider groups and organizations your ancestor was a member of when searching through collections.

ephemera example: postcard

Ephemera example: postcard. From the author’s collection.

Do you have ephemera from your family or someone else’s? Consider sharing this by scanning and posting it on the Internet. Several non-genealogy blogs share ephemera they have found or collected. Check out Forgotten Bookmarks, Paper Great, and Permanent Record for ideas of how others are sharing ephemera. By sharing their genealogical finds and collections they make it possible for descendants to be reunited with their family history.