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Christmas card collection at Pratt showcases holidays of past

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Santa artwork mailed as holiday greetings, embroidered fabrics that look more pincushion than Christmas card, and countless other historic missives had been tucked away in cabinets at downtown Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library for longer than anyone can remember.

Now, for the first time in decades of safekeeping, some 450 historic cards are on display. The rare Pratt exhibit shows how Marylanders have sent December greetings, either for Christmas, New Year's or Hanukkah, over 140 years.

"Each card is a little work of design," said Jack Young, the library's graphic designer. "Every time people approach these showcases, they see something different, something they can relate to."

The show comes at a time when the number of people sending cards seems to dwindle every year. The number of Christmas cards mailed fell 8.1 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to a U.S. Postal Service analysis.

"There'll be a time when young people will not know what a good printed Christmas card is. And that's depressing," said Dolph Gotelli, a retired University of California, Davis design professor and author of "Wonder and Delight," a book about his extensive collection of Christmas items.

The Pratt cards are often of sturdier stock than today's cards. Some reference World War II or a newfangled technology — like Santa becoming tangled in chimney-top television antennas in 1951. In another, Saint Nick is holding a martini.

Cards from Asia show graceful landscapes in subtle colors. Colorful 1920s cards hearken to a rosy world of carolers, olde English taverns, sailing ships and horse-drawn coaches. The winds always blow the neck scarves of the wintertime travelers.

"It's rare to have that many Christmas cards on display," said Stephen Wilt, a York, Pa., resident and former president of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a national collector's organization. "Cards are a field that have not been the focus of much attention. But I keep some from the 1920s, the art deco period. I love their colors and their images."

Library officials say they do not know when Pratt librarians started preserving the cards they felt had historic or artistic merit. The bulk of the collection was housed in the Fine Arts department.

Then, about six years ago, they consolidated these pieces of paper ephemera in the new quarters when the library expanded. They found they had 13 large boxes of cards holding 7,100 greetings, including those for Easter and Valentine's Day, and placed them in acid-free archival folders to better preserve the decades-old paper.

The December greetings exhibition runs until early February.

The show includes one of the earliest U.S. Christmas publications, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," an accordion-folded card made in the 1860s by Bostonian Louis Prang, who is often called the "father of the American Christmas card."

Young said he and other library staff members collaborated on the show.

"I found the cards in boxes, and it was just an idea we got in October. We thought we had to do it," he said. "This amazing material had been sitting for years. It is part of the Pratt legacy."

He joined with special collections manager Michael Johnson and bindery chief Martha Edgerton, who made hundreds of tiny easels and mounts. The exhibit fills 12 showcases.

The earliest cards at the Pratt exhibit undermine contemporary concepts of conventional Christmas decor. The designs intertwine robins with roses and carnations or other nonwinter-blooming flowers embellished with "Merry Christmas." These early cards are lavishly lithographed in deep, rich colors and are sometimes fringed in feathery silky trim. The familiar Christmas hues of green and red had not yet become dominant.

The first Christmas card was sent in England in 1843, though that card is not in the show.

Penny post cards began flooding the stationery market in the 1890s. An explosion in styles and creativity followed, with Santa making an appearance in brilliant red robes and children resembling the Campbell Soup kids. By the 1920s, Christmas cards had become nearly ubiquitous.

Few cards credit the artists who made them for the commercial stationers, who printed and sold them.

The show also contains curious examples of handmade cards by forgotten Baltimore artists. These designers did credit themselves.

Arthur Heiss, who made a living creating stage sets and working in a Howard Street jewelry shop, created painstaking dioramas of old Baltimore scenes. He photographed them and placed these images on his Christmas cards.

Frederick H.M.S. Farley, who lived in Glyndon, was a Maryland Institute College of Art instructor, had a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris and was a World War I flight commander in the Royal Air Force. An etcher, he made and signed his own cards, too.

Pratt officials chuckled over the card featuring a matron hurriedly signing and addressing cards as "Merry Christmas" thoughts swirled above her head. It was signed by Constantin Alajalov, a Russian-born artist who painted The New Yorker magazine covers.

Not all the cards are upbeat and merry.

"There is one that is somber. It shows an elderly woman hunched over making her way to a church service," Young said. "It is from the 1930s Depression. The image makes you pause."

Pratt staffers say the public has taken to the exhibition so enthusiastically that glass showcases housing the cards get a fresh coat of fingerprints daily and have to be cleaned.

"I want our exhibits to be a destination," Young said. "We have all these treasures beyond the doors here."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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