Vintage postcards still spread cheer

The modern Christmas card has nothing on these colorful old season’s greetings

Norwegian julenisse

Image courtesy of Cynthia Rubin
Vintage postcards from Norway show a variety of scenes. Cards often portrayed traditions, snowy scenes, and julenissen.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Orlando, Fla.

Today the postcard is mostly a memento or souvenir of a vacation, but early on, the postcard was a modern form of communication allowing people to share impressions and special occasions, not unlike email or Twitter.

A European import that crossed the Atlantic in 1893, postcards became popular when postal regulations in 1898 granted the same mailing privileges for privately printed cards as for government-issued postals. After the Rural Free Delivery system was established, the law was changed in 1907 to allow a personal message on the postcard’s back. This became the rule all over the globe, and Norway was no exception. Mailing a postcard cost little in the early 1900s, so participation in postcard mania soared.

Jul vintage postcard

Image courtesy of Cynthia Rubin
Norwegian postcards were sent to families in America, and American postcards were distributed to Norwegian Americans.

The number of global publishing companies, both large and small, that issued postcards pre-World War I, ran into thousands. Commercial suppliers sold millions of mass-produced color postcards that came off huge printing presses. The fever for sending postcards was quickly followed by a collecting epidemic. Throughout America, people assembled postcards in albums, a popular parlor entertainment for the armchair viewer and a common household fixture. So it is not surprising that today we find hundreds, even thousands, of examples. We find them in antique shops, at flea markets, and hidden away in family papers. While its history transforms the postcard into an art form that records and preserves cultural memory, it is also a source for colorful graphics.

By the beginning of the 20th century, most families in America and Norway exchanged gifts, decorated trees, and sent postcards at Christmas. Norwegian postcards were sent to families in America, and American postcards were distributed to Norwegian Americans. Often, the text was in Norwegian, but if the back of the postcard was in English or the stamp was American, it was probably produced for Norwegians in the American market. Also, jobbers in Norwegian-American communities imported postcards from Norway.

Many of the postcards from that time illustrate turn-of-the-century traditions, including the julenek, the bundle of grains that is put out to provide food for birds. Family life was important, as well as religion and winter wilderness. The stave church, the medieval wooden architectural masterpiece that mixes Christian and Viking symbols, was a noteworthy motif. In addition, the gnome-like fjøsnisse wearing red hats that in Norwegian folklore were the tiny beings that brought good fortune to farm and family as long as they were happy, were also a theme.

Boston Leif Erikson statue vintage postcard

Image courtesy of Cynthia Rubin
Boston’s Leif Erikson statue draped with the Norwegian and American flags is one of the author’s favorite vintage postcards.

One of my favorite Christmas postcard examples, Boston’s Leif Erikson statue shown with both the Norwegian and the American flags draped over its pedestal, is a bit of a mystery. Why would Boston have a Leif Erikson statue, you might ask, and why would it be used as a Christmas card? Unveiled in 1887, Erikson stands atop a pedestal inscribed with cryptic rune letters in a stance that looks more like a classic Roman gladiator than a war-faring Nordic adventurer. In an early photo, Erikson stands above a dragon-headed boat in a basin that is partially a fountain. At some point, the statue was moved and the pedestal was changed. No records indicate when that happened. Inspiration for the statue allegedly began with violinist Ole Bull, enthusiastic purveyor of Norse culture, and friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both are said to have discussed the idea over dinner in Longfellow’s home. The story of the statue’s eventual installation takes many turns in a long and circuitous journey that even involves the improbable culinary ingredient of baking powder. However, suffice it to say that the statue today stands erect in downtown Boston in an area that was once the bastion of the Proper Bostonian.

The Christmas postcard was the 280-character message of its day. Most can be appreciated today for their artistic beauty alone. However, each postcard tells a story as it conveys good wishes, and many illustrate the same traditions that we continue to honor.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.