A New York Holiday: Printing Christmas in the Nineteenth Century

Posted on December 5, 2019

Derek Vouri-Richard, Ph.D. student in the American Studies Program and SCRC Graduate Apprentice, introduces a new exhibit he curated. Read on to learn more about the history of New York's media industry and the cultural evolution of Christmas into the holiday we know today. Stop by the Swem Lobby this month to check out "A New York Holiday," which features selections from the Nancy H. Marshall “A Visit from St. Nicholas” Collection.

Black-and-white broadside featuring engravings of St. Nicholas and accompanying Christmas figures. Text of a poem is underneath the engravings, printed in what appears to be both Middle English and modern English.
St. Nicholas broadside, 1810 (Library of Congress)

Every year Swem Library exhibits Nancy H. Marshall’s extensive collection of Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and other Christmas iconography produced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For this year’s exhibit I wanted to look at the role of the Christmas holiday within the developing nation through the perspective of United States cultural history. This curation specifically considers the ways in which the New York media’s representation of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas evolved throughout the nineteenth century.

The story of Christmas in nineteenth-century New York City is, in many ways, a story of developing mediums of communication and representation. The growing media infrastructure throughout the nineteenth century concerned time and space altering technologies such as railroads, photography, telegraphs, telephones, and motion pictures. The most salient media technologies towards portraying Christmas in nineteenth-century New York involved changing printing processes. In antebellum New York, reproduction processes such as bookbinding and engraving produced early narratives and imagery of year-end holiday celebrations. This exhibit features two print publications from this period – Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New-York, a novel that celebrates the Dutch heritage of New York City through delineating St. Nicholas Day celebrations, and an image of the broadside engraving of St. Nicholas that was presented to the New-York Historical Society in 1810.

Throughout the middle of the century, the adoption of both steam power printing presses and making paper out of wood pulp increased the number of periodicals that disseminated across the New York cultural sphere. These technologies contributed to shifting the content of newspaper and other periodicals towards local journalism and urban cultural events. This exhibit displays two mid-century New York periodicals featuring Christmas representations – an 1857 printing of Moore’s poem featured in Mrs. Stephens’ Illustrated New Monthly, and an engraving of Christmas celebrations printed in an 1860 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Cover of Harper's Weekly, December 29, 1860. Cover features a black-and-white engraving of a group of people feasting at a table with the caption "Christmas Dinner." This image is surrounded by other vignettes illustrating unidentified people participating in holiday activities.
Harper’s Weekly engraving, 1860

During the second half of the century, color imagery became an increasingly popular supplement to print media. Color printing processes such as chromolithography, zincography, and eventually the halftone press allowed publications such as children’s books and magazines to create more whimsical and lavish images, including Christmas portrayals. This exhibit presents two McLoughlin Brothers Christmas books, one from approximately 1870 and the other from 1900. The McLoughlin Brothers were a New York publishing firm that specialized in color printing children’s paperback books.

Evolving representations of Christmas within the New York media occurred amid broader cultural developments throughout the nineteenth century. In the early decades of the century, the New-York Historical Society promoted St. Nicholas Day and created holiday celebrations throughout December. From the antebellum period through the Civil War, New York City experienced a period of rapid urbanization and an increasing immigrant population. During the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast created one of the earliest modern versions of Santa Claus in representing the holiday figure as a form of pro-Union sentiment. After the war and towards the twentieth century, expanding markets and growing corporate institutions allowed specialized publishing houses and centralized printing manufacturers to reach a mass audience. By the end of the century, Christmas representations from the New York media became marketing arms targeted towards an international audience.

Cover of "Around the World with Santa Claus," featuring an illustration of Santa in a red cloak and a crown made of greenery. He holds an assortment of toys, including a doll, a horse figurine, and a drum.
Around the World with Santa Claus, 1900
Swem Lobby exhibit case, currently featuring "A New York Holiday" exhibit. The background of the exhibit case is indigo/purple with an geometric outline of the Brooklyn Bridge. On the upper and lower shelves of the display case are an assortment of illustrated prints -- excerpts from the volumes of the Nancy H. Marshall Collection.
Swem Lobby exhibit case, currently featuring selections from the Nancy H. Marshall Collection

References and More to Explore:

New York Historical Society. The first celebration of the festival of St. Nicholas, by the New-York Historical Society, December 6th, [New York, 1864]. New York, 1864. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.11400300/.

“Christmas-Day” Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization IV, no. 209 (December 29, 1860). New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860. View the library catalog entry for this publication (AP2 .H32 / Rare Book - Folio).

Around the World with Santa Claus. New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1900. View the library catalog entry for this volume (GT4985.5 .A76 1900 / Rare Book - Nancy H. Marshall Collection).

Explore the Nancy H. Marshall Collection.  Please note that not all the volumes in the collection are in the library catalog yet. If you do not find a specific edition of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” of interest, please contact us.

Learn more about the life and legacy of Nancy H. Marshall, former Dean of University Libraries.