Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100
A few years ago, I did a survey for my newsletter subscribers, asking them questions about what they liked in my newsletters, what they could do without, and what they would like to see in the future. The overwhelming majority loved it when I wrote about holiday traditions in history. I think the holidays are all about traditions, both personal and collective, and we’re interested in what people did in the past because it shapes what we do today. So let’s talk about Christmas in the Gilded Age.
You might recall from my post here that the last quarter of the 19th century was about opulence and flashiness. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and Christmas was at the top of the list.
German settlers brought the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with them in the 1830s, but the Gilded Age turned this into something more elaborate. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned decorations of simple popcorn strings and beads, which had been the norm, into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a commercial enterprise during this time, replacing more modest homemade ornaments.
The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind. He wanted to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But Gilded Agers weren’t yet willing to embrace the idea of democratizing fine art. They were, however, happy to make the Christmas card more illustrious and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside but started a trend where other illustrators produced cheaper variations. Although they weren’t fine art, they were, as this article shows, still quite beautiful.
Gift-giving, which dominates Christmas advertising, became big business in the Gilded Age. Elaborate and expensive gifts were a way to show one’s generosity which, as we know, is part of what Christmas is all about. Wrapping presents was a Gilded Age invention, making gift-giving more exciting. And the kind of wrapping paper that people used mattered. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford while elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.
Last, but not least, there’s Santa. We think of Santa as a jovial, white-bearded, and somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the 19th century, Santa took on political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or support of Capitalism.
Want to know more about life in the Gilded Age? Check out my Waxwood Series! You can start immersing yourself in this fascinating era by following the life of a Gilded Age debutante as she unravels the family truths and finds meaning in her life for free here.
If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!