Monday, December 23, 2013

It's the 170th Anniversary of the First Mass-Produced Christmas Card

This card is believed to be the very first mass-produced Christmas card. It was designed by English painter John Calcott Horsley for his friend Henry Cole. Courtesy of Southern Methodist University Bridwell Library.
English painter John Calcott Horsley (1817-1903) is believed to have designed the very first mass-produced Christmas card in 1843. The three-paneled or triptych card was hand-colored and designed for Calcott’s friend, Henry Cole, founder and director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. As the story goes, Cole couldn’t find the time and was too harried and busy to write the traditional Christmas note or letter and wanted, instead, a quick way to send a Christmas greeting to friends and family. (Sound familiar?)

The middle panel of the card features a family heartily enjoying food, wine and merriment. The panel to the left shows a family in need receiving food, while the panel to the right shows a family in need receiving clothes. The scenes are framed with branches and ivy. The greeting: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” is printed on a pink banner in the middle panel.

As a recent article in the Telegraph points out, the lithograph card ignited a controversy and was criticized for depicting underage drinking in the form of a child sipping a glass of wine. Cole also sold extra cards for a shilling apiece which some thought was much too expensive.

It is thought that about 1,000 cards were produced. One of ten believed to have survived is held in the special collections at Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library.

For more on this card and the tradition of sending Christmas cards, please visit the following links:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Treasure Trove of Vintage Hollywood & Entertainment Publications

Recently, I stumbled across a link that brought me to the Media History Digital Library and I was stunned. There before me on my laptop screen was a vast archive, a searchable archive, of old periodicals from the movie, sound and broadcasting industries -- fan magazines, trade papers and the like -- all in one searchable database.

The Media History Digital Library, in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts, is a non-profit initiative which relies on donations of both materials to scan and financial contributions.

Currently, items in the online archives date from the early 1900s to the early 1960s. Vintage issues of Variety, Photoplay, The Film Daily, Radio Broadcast and more are available to the public to read and enjoy. According to the the project's web site, there are currently over 800,000 scanned pages.

This is a pardise for historians, film and theatre buffs, and lovers of all things vintage Hollywood. I just might loan my humble collection of 1950s movie magazines for scanning.

Check it out! Search the database using the site's Lantern search engine:

Photoplay magazines from the heydey of Hollywood
are now available to the public via the
Media History Digital Library.

Friday, June 21, 2013

American History TV to Cover Gettysburg Sesquicentennial, June 30-July 4

July 1-3, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Called the the bloodiest battle on American soil, the fighting at Gettysburg ended with a Union victory over the Confederacy's General Robert E. Lee and his plan to invade the North. Gettysburg was a turning point in the war, as Lee's defeat there effectively ended any hope for Confederate independence. (1)

The battle was also one of Civil War's most gruesome with 51,000 casualties.

To commemorate Gettysburg's sesquicentennial, the National Park Service will be hosting several events and ceremonies June 30 - July 4 at the site of the battle, which is now a National Military Park. For those unable to attend the park in person, C-SPAN3's American History TV (AHTV) will provide live and taped on-site coverage of the events beginning June 30 and culminating on July 4 when, according to a recent C-SPAN3 press release, "AHTV will commit 24 hours of air time on C-SPAN3 to the Gettysburg Battle sesquicentennial events."

The events at Gettysburg will also be covered via the channel's social media outlets on Twitter and Facebook. C-SPAN3 followers and fans are encouraged to use the Twitter hash tag #gettysburg150, which "will allow viewers and attendees to stay up-do-date on activities in Gettysburg and comment on the significance of the battle to the Civil War and American history."

Battlefield of Gettysburg, Dead horses of Bigelow's (9th Massachusetts) battery.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

In addition, the C-SPAN Bus, an interactive classroom, "will make several stops throughout Gettysburg between June 25 and July 1."  For a list of scheduled stops and more information about C-SPAN3's coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, visit

To learn what it was like to fight in the battle, visit the web site of the Wisconsin Historical Society to read diary excerpts from Captain Nathaniel Rollins of the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry who recorded his activities and observations at Gettysburg from June 30 to July 6, 1863. Rollins was taken prisoner during the battle. (2)



Thursday, June 6, 2013

History in Color

Rare color photographs from the 1930s and 40s seem to be popping up all over the Internet lately. Time Life recently released a series of color photos from WWII to highlight today's anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944). Color images from this time period are rare. We are accustomed to viewing this era through a black-and-white lens and it seems so very far away.

With the release of these images we see the past in vibrant color. Suddenly it's as though history has greeted us with an enthusiastic "hello!" and we can almost imagine that the photos were snapped yesterday.

These images are truly stunning. It's easy to find yourself staring, mesmerized, at the faces, smiles, clothing, hair (and the red lipstick!) -- everything in these photos is fascinating to see.

Here are some links to view more of the photos. Take some time to click through them. You'll be happy you did.

Related Story: WWII Sailor's Voice Recorded in Song

Time Life  D-Day Images

Time Life Images of WWII-Era London

Library of Congress Images from the 1930s & 40s

WWII Bomber Planes in Color

"All the civilized world loves France and Paris. Americans share this love with a special intimacy born in the kinship of our revolutions, our ideas and our alliances in two great wars." — LIFE on the relationship between the U.S. and its longtime European ally.
Read more:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I Adore National Women's History Month

Women's history is near and dear to me. My graduate thesis focused on both Northern white women and Southern slave women during the American Civil War (perhaps I should publish it). My current writing project involves the diaries of Sarah Van Hoosen Jones who wrote them as a 17-year-old girl traveling abroad with her mother, aunt and grandmother in 1909. (There is so much history in those little books.) I wrote college papers (and a blog post) on Gertrude Ederle and her historic swim across the English Channel and on and on.

As you know, there are many important and untold stories about womens' contributions to the world and its history. To celebrate and educate, this blog post is dedicated to some notable women who lived in my community years ago. It's an article I wrote for Rochester Patch about six women whose legacies stretched beyond the boundaries of the village/city in which they lived.

Happy National Women's History Month!

(Reposted from Rochester Patch with permission.)

Rochester's Most Famous Women Include Dairy Farmer, Minister and One Who Formed Oakland University 

For National Women's History Month, we salute a few of Rochester's most important women.

Those familiar with the history of Rochester – even just a little bit – know the names of some of the area’s most prominent women of the past. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones, Bertha Van Hoosen and Matilda Dodge Wilson are among the women whose stories we’ve read or heard about during a tour of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm or Meadow Brook Hall.

They make us proud knowing how instrumental each was in the establishment and growth of our community.

In addition to these prominent local women, there are others from Rochester’s history whose names may not be so recognizable, but whose contributions to Rochester and beyond were equally significant.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell you a bit about some of our town’s most interesting and important women of the past.

Almost all of these women were integral in the formation of Rochester’s civic, cultural and educational institutions. Others, inspired by their time and work in our town, became important figures in social causes and movements that spread across Michigan and the nation.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell

Believed to be the first ordained female minister in the United States and a champion of women’s rights and other social causes, Antoinette Brown Blackwell spent a brief period of time in Rochester in the 1840s as a teacher at a private high school called the Academy of Rochester.

A native of New York, Blackwell attended Ohio’s Oberlin Collegiate Institute in 1846, where she studied theology and began honing her skills in public speaking – a pursuit generally reserved for men at the time.

According to Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell 1846-93, edited by Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, Brown and a few other female friends from Oberlin organized their “own secret debating and mutual improvement society, inspired perhaps by Brown’s experiences at the liberal Rochester Academy in Michigan, where she taught in fall and early winter 1846-47. There she had learned new skills by working with a young women’s debating society and delivering her own extemporaneous talks at school assemblies that were open to the public.”

During her time at Oberlin, Blackwell traveled and spoke out in favor of women’s rights, temperance and an end to slavery. In 1850, she attended the first National Women's Rights convention in Worcester, Mass. Other attendees included Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth.

As Lasser and Merrill noted, both Blackwell and her friend, women’s rights activist Lucy Stone, “committed themselves to work for the social progress of women and the emancipation of black Americans from slavery and racial prejudice.”

Antoinette Brown Blackwell was believed to be the first
female minister in the country. Credit:

Fidelia Woolley Gillette

Fidelia Woolley Gillette was a noted writer, lecturer, minister and poet. A staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, Gillette moved from Birmingham to Rochester with her husband in the 1860s and became the women’s rights editor of the Rochester Era newspaper.

In an article written by Maureen Thalmann for the Rochester Clarion in Oct. 1995, it’s noted that Gillette lectured on issues of temperance, supported the Rochester Literary and Library Society and spoke to people throughout Michigan about women’s suffrage as a representative of the Woman Suffrage Society. Her work and dedication to social causes caught the attention of the Detroit Free Press, which, as Thalmann cites, called Gillette “a thinker of uncommon breadth” in April 1875.

In 1874, the Michigan State Woman’s Suffrage Association selected Gillette and nine others to represent Rochester and Avon Township in Lansing at their annual meeting. It was there that the association began planning a campaign in support of a proposed constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.

“With the overwhelming defeat of the (proposed amendment),” wrote Thalmann, “the Michigan State Woman’s Suffrage Association went out of existence.”

Despite the setback, Gillette continued to work for the rights of women and others experiencing prejudice in society. She was ordained a Universalist minister in 1877 and became a missionary for the church.

In addition to her work with the Rochester Literary and Library Society, Gillette was a founding member of the Rochester Woman’s Club in 1896, a group dedicated to the study of art, literature and science and which went on to establish Rochester’s first public library.

Fidelia Wolley Gillette worked tirelessly for women's rights.
Credit: Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Sarah Van Hoosen Jones

Born in 1892 and raised on the Van Hoosen farmstead in Stoney Creek Village in what is now Rochester Hills, Sarah Van Hoosen Jones lived in an era when women were discouraged from attending college.

With the support of parents who believed in education – her mother, Alice, had been a schoolteacher and her father, Joseph, a school superintendent – Jones went on to earn a master’s degree in animal husbandry in 1916 and a doctorate in animal genetics from the University of Wisconsin in 1921.

With degrees in hand and a natural affinity for farming, Jones eventually took over the operation and management of her family’s dairy farm, now the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

According to the museum’s web site, under Jones’ direction, the Van Hoosen farm “supplied the majority of milk consumed in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s and was the first farm in southeastern Michigan to produce certified milk.”

Jones gained national recognition for her successful farming career, becoming one of two women in the United States to be named Master Farmer in 1932. She was also the first woman in the United States to be named a premiere breeder of Holstein cattle.

In addition to her agricultural pursuits, Jones served the Rochester community in numerous ways. She was a member of the Stoney Creek and Rochester school boards from 1924 to 1961 and was a founding member of the Oakland University Board of Trustees.

Jones deeded the Van Hoosen farmhouse and property to Michigan State University upon her death in 1972. The university then donated the farmhouse and 3.5 acres of farmland to Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) for use as a museum. The rest of the property was sold to a private developer. In 1989, the City of Rochester Hills took ownership of the farm and acquired 10 surrounding acres from private owners to establish the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Sarah Van Hoosen Jones successfully ran her family's dairy farm at what is
now the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.
Credit: Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Eva Woodward Parker

Eva Woodward Parker was the daughter of pioneering Rochester farmer and politician Lysander Woodward and is credited with helping to build Rochester’s first public library.

Parker lived in the Woodward family home at 1385 N. Main Street until her death in 1933. In 1949, funds from her estate helped build Rochester’s first public library building, located on the northeast corner of Fifth (now University) and Pine streets in downtown Rochester. It was named Woodward Memorial Library in Parker’s honor.

Despite modifications to the building over the years, the library eventually outgrew it. Now renamed the Rochester Hills Public Library, a new library building was built on Olde Town Road in 1999.

A variety of boutiques and businesses, including Rochester Play, now occupy the former library building.

Eva Woodward Parker died in 1933 and left her estate to the community
to establish a permanent library. This photograph was taken around 1890 at the
Huntington and Clark Studios in Detroit.
Credit: Rochester Hills Public Library via the OCHR web site.

Bertha Van Hoosen

Bertha Van Hoosen was born in 1863 and grew up on her family’s farm (what is now the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm) in Stoney Creek Village. There she learned the ways of a farm, witnessing the birth of countless farm animals. Overtime, she developed a love of medicine and science.

While her parents supported higher education for women, they were less enthusiastic about Van Hoosen’s desire to pursue a medical career and become a surgeon. Undeterred, she worked to earn money to attend the University of Michigan, from which she graduated with a degree in medicine in 1888.

She went on to specialize in women’s medicine and childbirth.

“At a time when women doctors were rare,” notes the museum’s web site, “Bertha served her community as an obstetrician, gynecologist and surgeon. Her illustrious career spanned more than 50 years.”

During her career, Van Hoosen developed a number of innovative practices and techniques. Among them were the “buttonhole” appendectomy and the use of scopolamine morphine (Twilight Sleep) as an anesthetic during childbirth.

Additionally, Van Hoosen taught medicine, serving as a professor at the Women’s Medical College of Northwestern University and at the University of Illinois. She became head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Loyola University and founded the American Medical Women’s Association.

Van Hoosen was also an early champion of sterilizing surgical instruments to prevent infection and campaigned for women’s equality in the field of medicine.

A portrait of Bertha Van Hoosen, who developed a love for medicine and
science in her early years and went on to become a well-respected doctor.
Credit: Archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

Matilda Dodge Wilson

Born Matilda Rausch in 1883, Wilson lived a quintessential American story. The daughter of German immigrants, Wilson was born in Canada and moved with her family to Detroit in 1884, where, according to the website for Meadow Brook Hall, her father owned a saloon and her mother operated a boarding house.

In 1908, Wilson married John Dodge, who, along with his brother, Horace, owned a successful automotive parts company in Detroit.

The Dodge’s raised six children – three from John Dodge’s previous marriage and three of their own. They lived in Detroit and spent weekends at their Meadow Brook Farms property and country home in Rochester.

In 1920, John Dodge died, leaving his wife to care for six children and a large estate. Matilda Dodge turned to her philanthropic pursuits and worked in earnest to support many social causes, including women’s rights.

As noted in Wilson’s biography on the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame website, Wilson generously supported many local organizations with both financial donations and with her time and leadership skills. From 1922 to 1929, she served as president of the Salvation Army Auxiliary. She was also treasurer of the National Council of Women and director and first female chairperson of the board of directors for the Fidelity Bank and Trust in Detroit.

In 1925, Wilson married lumber broker Alfred Wilson. After selling her holdings in the Dodge Motor Car Company, Wilson became heir to “one of the largest fortunes in the United States,” according to the website for Meadow Brook Hall.

She and her husband soon built a new home on the Meadow Brook Farm property – today’s Meadow Brook Hall.

The Wilsons played a pivotal role in the formation of Oakland University. Together they donated their estate, including Meadow Brook Hall and an additional $2 million to Michigan State University to create a branch campus in Rochester. That branch became Oakland University in 1963.

Monday, February 18, 2013

President's Day: The Capture of John Wilkes Booth

In Feb. 2011, I wrote an article for Rochester Patch about a local family's connection to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The gentleman I interviewed for the article, Herb Peters, gave a thorough presentation to the Rochester-Avon Historical Society one evening about his ancestors who, unknowingly, gave room and board to John Wilkes Booth, a fugitive on the run accused of murdering the president.

It's the story of how Booth came to his end -- a story surrounded in myth and speculation since 1865. But for Peters, the story of Booth's futile attempt to run after he leaped from the balcony at Ford's Theatre was precisely how his family had told it for generations. And he had the proof -- a letter from Booth's brother, Edwin -- still in his possession.

Peters, who was 95 at the time this story was posted, passed away just a couple of months later.

The capture of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is captured in this illustration,
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Congressman's Dad Shares Family's Connection to Lincoln Assassin
(Reprinted with permission from Rochester Patch)

At 95, Herbert Garrett Peters has a lot of stories to tell. A former English teacher and newspaperman, Peters knows how to tell a good tale – particularly when it’s one of his own.

Recently, Peters spoke to members of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society about his ancestry, which reads like an encyclopedia of American history. Not only is he descended from a Revolutionary War soldier, but Peters’ lineage also includes an association with one of the most infamous characters in American history: John Wilkes Booth, an actor best known for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln.

A life full of history

Peters, who is the father of U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-9th District, was born and raised in Rochester, which makes him — according to members of the historical society — the oldest-known Rochester-born citizen in the area.

During his presentation to society members, Peters fondly recalled his life as a boy in Rochester. His father worked for the DUR (Detroit United Railroad) in Rochester until it shut down in 1931. To support his family of five, his father then operated a grocery store from an addition built onto the family's house, and he later trained horses at his dude ranch on Harding Road.

In 1941, Peters joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and became a first lieutenant. Three years later, he was stationed in Remes (now Reims), France, where he met his future bride, Madeline. They returned to Rochester in 1947 to begin married life and raise a family.

For 32 years, Peters taught English in Rochester’s junior high schools, and for 36 years, he was a reporter and editor for the Rochester Clarion.

Ties that bind

Peters’ family history spreads across the United States and covers the North and the South. His great-great-grandfather Ebenezer Peters was born in Rhode Island and was raised in the North. Another great-great-grandfather, William Garrett, was born and raised on a Virginia plantation and served as a soldier at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War.

When that war ended, Garrett returned to the plantation, married and had a son, Richard, born in 1806. Richard, Peters’ great-grandfather, eventually bought a Virginia farm of his own – a farm that not only became the scene of one of the most sensational stories in American history, but it is also the subject of a decades-long debate among historians that may soon come to a shocking conclusion.

John Wilkes Booth and the Garrett farm

On April 24, 1865, five horsemen rode up to the gates of the Garrett farm. As Peters tells the story, one of the riders, in Confederate uniform, approached Richard Garrett and told him, “One of the riders here is J. Boyd, a wounded Confederate soldier returning to his home in Maryland, and in need of short rest.”

Peters explained to the audience that “the Garretts did not know that President Lincoln had been assassinated by an actor named John Wilkes Booth on April 14 in a theater in Washington.”

Garrett gave in to Southern hospitality and his respect for the Confederacy, Peters said, and agreed to let the man named Boyd rest at the farm.

“None of the Garretts knew that Booth and co-conspirator David Herold escaped from Washington by horseback into Maryland and were the objects of a massive federal manhunt,” said Peters. And they didn't know that Booth was using the name Boyd as an alias to escape capture.

For the next two days, Booth lived and dined with the Garretts. He shared an upstairs bedroom with the Garrett's children, including 7-year-old Robert Clarence, Peters’ grandfather.

Booth also socialized with the Garrett’s other children, including 2-year-old Cora Lee, whom he referred to as his “little blue-eyed pet.”

“He’s completely at ease,” said Peters about Booth in the Garrett household. “He’s a superb actor and no appearance of a man on the run. He engages the family in small talk ... and he’s very grateful to the Garretts for their kindness.”

While Booth rested at their home, the Garretts learned of Lincoln’s murder — and of the $140,000 reward for turning in the assassin.

When Booth became fearful that Union forces were moving in, the Garretts grew suspicious of him and his “cousin” Herold. While they still didn’t realize he was Lincoln’s assassin, they did believe he was in some sort of trouble. So they moved him and Herold from their house to their tobacco barn.

On April 26, Union forces stormed Garrett’s farm, and the 16th New York Cavalry surrounded the house, demanding to know the whereabouts of Booth and Herold.

The Garretts directed the officers in charge to the tobacco barn where the two men were hiding out. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused, so the cavalry lit the barn on fire. According to Peters and many historians, Booth was then shot in the neck by Sgt. Boston Corbett. Mortally wounded, Booth was carried out of the barn to the porch of the Garrett house and died.

The whole event was witnessed by Peters’ grandfather, the 7-year-old Robert Clarence Garrett.

Historical fact or legend?

As with most historical narratives, there is another side to this story. While many historians and researchers believe Booth died at the Garrett farm, others — namely, Booth’s descendants — doubt the story and believe he escaped capture and lived several more years before committing suicide in 1907.

As David Lohr pointed out in his article “Did Abe Lincoln’s Assassin Escape? DNA May Solve Mystery” for AOL News, this version of Booth’s story was popularized by Finis L. Bates in his book, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, published in 1907.

In the book, Lohr noted, Bates alleged that a man resembling Booth was killed at Garrett’s farm. He also claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Booth’s survival, stating that he was an attorney for a man named John St. Helen, who confessed to Bates that his true identity was John Wilkes Booth.

According to Bates, Booth later became known as David E. George and committed suicide in Enid, OK, 42 years after the assassination of Lincoln.

While Bates’ story has largely been refuted, there is still enough doubt to make Booth’s descendants want to find the truth.

In December 2010, several news outlets reported that Booth’s descendants planned to have the body of his brother, Edwin, exhumed for DNA testing.

“By using DNA comparisons,” writes Edward Colimore in his article “Booth Descendants Agree to Brother’s Body ID Tests” for The Inquirer on, “relatives from the Philadelphia area, New Jersey and Rhode Island hope to learn in the coming months whether the lore of John Wilkes Booth’s flight is true.”

According to Lohr, the Booth family wants “to compare DNA from Booth’s brother ... to that of a bone specimen at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. The bone is from a man who was gunned down inside the (Garrett) barn.”

Previous efforts to exhume the body of John Wilkes Booth were denied by a judge in 1995 who believed that Booth's exact burial location, Colimore wrote, "could not be conclusively determined."

Before testing on Booth's body can begin, however, "the family wants to get permission from the museum to obtain the DNA sample from the bone specimen," wrote Lohr. "A panel of judges will make the final decision."

No testing needed

To the Peters family, there’s no doubt that the man shot and killed on their ancestor’s property was John Wilkes Booth.

At the close of the historical society program, Peters told the audience that while Booth lay dying, a member of the Garrett family snipped a lock of his black hair to give to his mother.

Peters then cited a letter written on June 10, 1878, about that lock of hair and addressed to his great-uncle Richard B. Garrett:

Dear Sir,

I have received and forwarded to our mother the memory of the misguided boy whose madness brought so much ill to us. Though his name has never been spoken by us since his untimely end, I decided to express our good attitudes to your family for your kindness to him in his last hours. And for the last act which I am sure will do much to soothe and comfort his heartbroken mother.

Yours very truly,

Edwin Booth

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960

Apologies if you follow my blog or even check in once-in-a-while. I haven't written a post since September. SEPTEMBER! Wow! That went by fast. Now it's the end of the year. Christmas has just past, but its spirit continues as the New Year approaches. 

So before 2012 fades into the sunset, I wanted to write a final post for the year about Christmas. This one was inspired by my cousin who, while watching A Christmas Carol on TV, sent me a message asking what might have been on the menu for Christmas dinner in mid-1800s and suggested the topic might be good for a blog post. Good idea, Cousin!

So, let's take a look at Christmas dinners in America (and a few abroad) from the 1860s to the 1960s. Each decade had its food fads and fancies, there were definitely variations through the years and not everyone had access to certain foods of the time, but Christmas dinners remained fairly traditional throughout those 100 years. 

Civil War Christmas

In the early 1860s, Christmas took on a somber tone. The Civil War meant fewer presents, loved ones missing from the dinner table, and shortages of food staples.

Christmas dinners often consisted of a main meat or two -- turkey, goose, partridge, chicken, lamb, beef/veal, smoked or boiled ham, fish -- potatoes, oysters, mince pies, cranberries, jams, chestnuts and desserts like bread and plum puddings, custards and pies.

In the years that followed the war, Christmas dinners didn't change much, though they did include some new items on the table.

The Boston Cooking-School Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer was published in 1896 and included a Christmas menu with consommé, olives, celery, bread sticks, salted pecans, roast goose, potato stuffing, applesauce, pudding, assorted cakes, bonbons, cheese, crackers and black coffee.

People living in rural areas relied mostly on home-grown foods, pickled or canned, and livestock in the barns to provide a Christmas meal.

A New Century of Celebrations

In Queen of the Household  published in 1900 and noted by (a great resource for food history), Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth suggested serving "clam or oyster soup, celery, baked fish . . . roast duck, onion sauce, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes . . . stewed tomatoes, rolls, salmon . . . plum pudding, peach pie, fruit, nuts, coffee and chocolate" for Christmas dinner.

During a trip abroad in 1909, Rochester, Michigan's Sarah Van Hoosen Jones wrote about her Christmas in Cannes. 

"We entered the room in which were 3 tables decorated with palms, oranges, dozens of roses and other flowers. The sun shone in brightly on us. First we had fried small fish, then a stuffed feathered pheasant spread . . . In front of the bird was the meat . . . After the pheasant was roast beef and potatoes, next was a cake with Joyeux Noel written on it, served with ice-cream. Lastly, we had fruit. This was our Christmas dinner in Cannes, France in the year 1909."

While many Americans enjoyed such traditional fare as roasted meats, plum puddings, cranberries and stuffing for Christmas dinner, immigrants in the U.S., as correctly points out, often celebrated the holidays with their own traditional foods. Christmas dishes might have consisted of stuffed cabbage rolls, sausages, pierogi, latkes, pasta, and a variety of cakes and cookies.

Christmas dinner in a newsboy's Bowery lodging house. Image from Century Magazine, 1912.

Christmas During the Roaring Twenties & the Great Depression

Christmas dinner in the 1920s might have featured roast goose, olives, cream of celery soup, bread sticks, souffles, lettuce salads, dressing, toasted crackers, and coffee as Helena Judson and Flora Rose offered in  The New Butterick Cook-Book, published in 1924.

The Great Depression of the 1930s mirrored the Civil War for many in the U.S. as money, food, and gifts were scarce. For those struggling to find work, Christmas dinner might have consisted of cream of peanut butter soup, roasted chicken, applesauce, potatoes, crackers, cheese, puddings or pies as suggested by Good Housekeeping Magazine in Dec. 1931 and noted by 

Photos: Farm Security Administration: Christmas dinner in the home of
Earl Pauley near Smithland, Iowa, c. 1935.

In the book, San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s, Mary E. Livingston and Frances R. Pryor noted that some others enjoyed a Christmas dinner with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, cranberry sauce, salad and pie. 

A WWII Christmas

Christmas Day Dinner 1943, USS New York, Captain Kemp C. Christian, U.S.N. Commanding.
New York, USS file, ZC files, Navy Department Library.

In the early 1940s, WWII once again demanded rationing of food and household goods. Soldiers on the front lines may have dined on canned goods like Spam for Christmas (though other soldiers and seamen fared better eating in the mess halls, tents and dinning rooms as illustrated by the 1943 US Navy menu above), while their families back home served limited meats, potatoes, vegetables, bread, candies and pies.  

Christmas in the Atomic Age

American Meat Institute Ad, c. 1950s.
Christmas dinner in the 1950s resembled most others from decades past, though cooking technology was far more advanced.  Multiple cooking ranges, refrigerators and the like inspired many a domestic chef to branch out a bit and serve a variety of traditional and non-traditional foods and beverages, including Coca-Cola and 7Up.

In the article, "Your Christmas Dinner, the Best Meal of the Year," written by Ruth Ellen Church for the Dec. 20, 1957 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune and noted by, the "best meal" consisted of "cranberry juice cocktail . . . roast turkey, sweet potato or chestnut stuffing, giblet gravy or roast prime ribs of beef . . . cranberry relish or sauce, celery stuffed with blue cheese, olives, radishes . . . fruit salad . . . rolls, eggnog, pie, port wine and coffee . . ."

So, there you have it. Christmas dinners through the years from 1860 to 1960. How did your holiday dinner compare? Similar or vastly different? Let me know in the comments if you wish. 

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas meal and holiday with family and friends. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!