A Holiday Card Tradition from the Past
Robert Frost’s annual holiday cards were often first editions of his poems and also a showcase for the designers and artists of the mid-century.
Photos Peggy Garbus
One of my favorite holiday traditions is opening the Christmas and New Year greetings that arrive in our mailbox between Thanksgiving and the first weeks of January. The cards are opened with care, collected in a basket, and looked at often during the holiday season. The recent trend in holiday cards is to upload a favorite family photo to an online card-generating website where there is a plethora of graphic elements, type styles, and messages to choose from. Some companies will stamp and address your envelopes for a fee—no laborious handwriting required. The whole process takes just a few minutes.
Around the time these digitally produced cards were first becoming popular, I met Elinor Frost Wilber, granddaughter of celebrated poet Robert Frost. A mutual friend had arranged our meeting and Elinor arrived carrying an old shoebox, eager to tell me about a Frost family Christmas-card tradition spanning several decades.
Inside the box were 19 of the 25 exquisitely designed and printed miniature holiday greetings (8 to 16 page booklets called “chapbooks”) sent by her grandfather to his family, friends, and professional colleagues between 1929 and 1962. Although Frost’s poems are closely associated with the simple life in rural New England, his approach to these holiday cards was by no means simple. They were time-intensive collaborations between Frost and the best artists, designers, and printers of the time.
I was smitten by this collection and interested in the backstory. I learned that in 1926 two idealistic book-loving young men, Joseph Blumenthal and George Hoffman, opened a letterpress shop in Manhattan under the name of Spiral Press. The publisher Henry Holt and Company was an important early client, and it hired Spiral Press to produce a book of collected poems for Robert Frost. During this project Joseph Blumenthal decided (without permission) to reprint one of the poems to use as a Christmas greeting card for his wife and a small group of colleagues.
Frost saw the card, appreciated the efforts of the small press and wrote to Blumenthal requesting they meet. This bit of seasonal ephemera inspired a long collaboration. The chapbooks are a felicitous marriage of Frost’s poetry laid out in Blumenthal’s carefully considered typography, and illustrated with beautifully rendered woodcuts and engravings. Due to their unwavering belief in the importance of the printed word, Frost and Blumenthal were driven to lavish care on each piece.
Starting in 1929, the poet and printer sent the cards yearly as a Christmas greeting. They became an acclaimed series of first editions. Seven hundred and seventy-five copies of the first holiday chapbook were printed; the final poem in the series (in 1962) had the largest print run at over 16,000. Classic poems by Frost including “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and The Wood-Pile, are included in the set. Several of the chapbooks in Elinor’s shoebox have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband.
When my son Henry was young, we started a family tradition of making our own New Year’s greeting card: a simple composition with the word “peace” hand-drawn in big letters. For the first few years Henry enthusiastically took on the task of creating the artwork, each year inspired by different objects or activities that interested him. When Henry reached middle school, he announced his retirement from the position of card artist and handed the responsibility over to me.
This year’s peace card is our ninth consecutive variation on the theme. We adhere to just a few rules: the word “peace” is always rendered by hand, only in black and white, printed the same size and on the same paper stock. We choose a festive stamp, hand-address the envelopes, and mail a hundred cards to friends and family just as the New Year begins.
Hopefully our card brings pleasure to its recipients and hopefully someone in my family is saving them in an old shoebox to enjoy again at a later date, when the ritual of sending holiday cards may be a thing of the past.
GET GREETING! According to Hallmark, 1.3 billion holiday cards are sent annually at Christmastime, and 75 percent of consumers send cards “because they know how good it feels” to receive one. Awww.