Last year at this time, I wrote about how Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published in a Troy, N.Y. newspaper. The final chapter of this year’s Christmas story will take us across the Hudson River to Albany.
A few weeks ago, like many of you, I was out doing my Christmas shopping. I don’t recall if it was always this way, but it was easier to find decent Christmas cards anywhere other than one of the scant few Hallmark stores left in my geographical area.
I have to admit, I do find that Christmas carols are pleasant background music that gets me into the holiday spirit while shopping. Although, if you know anyone who works in retail, by about mid-December they have been so pummeled by more than a month’s worth of non-stop recorded caroling that, for his own protection, the Little Drummer Boy had best enter the Witness Protection Program.
Along with caroling, advertising is another ubiquitous feature of the holiday season. In my youth, the Christmas season officially began when Norelco’s “Noëlco” ad featuring Santa riding in an electric razor started airing, although I have no idea if it still exists. As we all know, advertising jingles—whether specific to Christmas or not—are just as catchy as noels.
When do you think the first commercial jingle was written? If you said “ancient China” you would be essentially correct. The Chinese Classic of Poetry—a compendium of more than 300 poems compiled between the 11th and 7th centuries B.C., supposedly by Confucius—notes that music played on bamboo flutes was used to sell candy. The first printed advertisement is believed to date from the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1276) and was a handbill for Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop, located in Shandong Province. It depicted a rabbit holding a sewing needle and bore the slogan “We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine-quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.” Don Draper, eat your heart out.
Advertising also took the form of signage, typically used to identify a particular vendor’s wares in a public market. Simple visuals or pictographs that depicted the type of goods sold was important at the time for a very simple reason: many people couldn’t read. That situation continued.
In Medieval Europe, in the days before the printing press, the primary mass communication medium was the town crier. No, not the saddest person in town, but rather (usually) an officer of the Court who rang a bell and shouted the news of the day, important proclamations from the government, and, of course, ads. In Goslar, Germany, home of a brewery that used the local river as a water source, one particular town crier was tasked with announcing, “Hiermit ward bekannt gemaket, dat kaaner in die Gose kaket, denn morgen wird gebraut” (“Let it be known, that nobody should take a dump in the Gose [river], because tomorrow we will be brewing”) (Brown, 2013). (Crudely put, but it got the message across.)
After the advent of printing, one of the most common forms of advertising was the “trade card,” a professional version of the personal calling card that was used to announce the arrival of a guest to someone’s home. The trade card was also the precursor of the business card. One of the oldest extant trade cards was printed in 1622 for Paris marchand maître chapellier (merchant master hatter) George Marceau. It featured a woodcut image of Marceau’s shop sign and a scarf and hats above letterpress-printed text. Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, UK, a former weekend residence for the Rothschilds and now run by the National Trust, has a collection of 700 or so trade cards that were acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1891. They represent a cross-section of European businesses from the 17th to the 19th century, such as stationers, goldsmiths, printmakers, art dealers, embroiderers, confectioners, and even the owner of a tennis court.
Trade cards evolved into business cards, yes, but also trading cards, which became collectible items for enthusiasts of various subjects, such as sports. Indeed, as both baseball and photography grew in popularity during the 19th century, baseball cards began to be included in packs of cigarettes (called cigarette cards) before becoming a commodity unto themselves. (What is the world’s most valuable baseball card? Well, last April a 1909 card depicting Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Honus Wagner sold for $1.3 million. I hope the buyer at least got a stick of gum with it.)
Trade cards also led to another type of card.
In the mid-1800s, residents of Albany could do their Christmas shopping at Pease’s Great Variety Store, aka “The Temple of Fancy,” located at 518 Broadway. It was sort of an upmarket five-and-dime that sold books, toys, games, and other items. The store was founded in the 1840s by Robert Pease, who was some time later joined by his brother Harry. Not only were they the proprietors of the great variety store, they were also prominent printers, specializing in books, especially children’s books. Pease is believed to have run the first ad—which appeared in the Albany Evening Journal in 1841—that featured Santa Claus. The image isn’t quite the Santa we know—that would come later in Thomas Nast’s 1881 illustration—but the jolly old elf is carrying a sack of toys and is about to descend a chimney, so you do the math.
The Pease brothers would make another Christmas first a decade later. In 1851, they printed a holiday-themed trade card for their store which would go down in history as the first printed Christmas card. (There is only one surviving example left, in a collection at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.)
Pease’s shut its doors in 1860s, but the building still exists. It is said that Pease’s print shop is being converted to condos (that’s progress for you, I guess), but the Christmas card had a long and healthy life throughout the 20th century. Under pressure from, what else, e-cards and social media, the printed Christmas card still hangs on—and still hangs on the mantel.
Merry Christmas from The Digital Nirvana.
If you enjoy these historical essays, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, defiantly available only in print from Amazon.
“Temple of Fancy: Pease’s Great Variety Store,” Albany Institute of History & Art, 2011, http://www.albanyinstitute.org/temple-of-fancy.html.
“Printed in Albany: The first Christmas card and the first Santa ad,” All Over Albany, December 21, 2012, http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2012/12/21/printed-in-albany-the-first-christmas-card-and-the.
Chris Brown, “Twin Town Crier helps keep the beer flowing,” Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier, April 19, 2013, http://www.windsortowncrier.com/twin-town-crier/.
Zhongguo lishi bowu guan, ed., Zhongguo godai shi cankao tulu: Song Yuan shiqi, Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1991, via http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/graph/tcommain.htm.
“Introduction to the Trade Cards collection at Waddesdon Manor,” Waddeson Manor, http://www.waddesdon.org.uk/collection/special-projects/trade-cards.
“Advertising,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 9, 2015, retrieved December 10, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advertising.
“Trade card,” Wikipedia, last modified on September 19, 2015, retrieved December 10, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_card.