This Christmas season the Albany Institute of History & Art will be exhibiting America’s first commercially printed Christmas card. Printed in Albany around 1850, the card is on loan to the Albany Institute from the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections in England as part of The Capital Region in 50 Objects exhibition. This is the only known copy of the card to survive and this is the first time the card has been on view in the United States.
The modern concept of Santa Claus is a product of the Hudson River Valley. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch brought their Sinterklaas, which later merged with Father Christmas and the popular fourth century Saint Nicolas, the Greek Bishop of Myra. In addition, the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, the writings of Washington Irving, and illustrations by Thomas Nast further cemented this icon of the holiday season into contemporary culture.
Little known today, however, is the fact that a merchant from Albany named Richard H. Pease (1813–1891) was the first to use an image of Santa Claus to advertise his gift wares (published in the Albany Evening Journal on December 17, 1842) and he was responsible for printing the first Christmas card in America.
Richard H. Pease came to Albany around 1833 and by 1847 had built his general variety store called the Temple of Fancy at 516-518 Broadway. Pease operated his variety store only until 1855 before selling the inventory and turning over the building (still called the Temple of Fancy) to his son, Harry E. Pease.
Pease probably printed this Christmas card for the 1849–1850 holiday season, although it could have been as early as 1847, the year he opened his store.
The Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections are known for their extensive collections of prints, ephemera, and decorated papers. The Albany-printed card was part of a private collection that was donated to MMU Special Collections. Curator Stephanie Boydell traveled more than 3,000 miles to deliver the card to the Albany Institute for The Capital Region in 50 Objects exhibition. In a release from MMU Special Collections, Boydell states: “It’s amazing to think that the only known copy of the very first American Christmas Card is held at our Special Collections. It’s a wonderful illustration of the strange lives that objects lead after they are made. It was a pleasure to take it ‘home’ to Albany and to place such an innocuous little card amongst the other ‘firsts’ that the city claims.”
Thomas Nelson, exhibitions designer at the Albany Institute of History & Art and primary researcher of this extraordinary history, is excited to be able to display the card as part of The Capital Region in 50 Objects exhibit: “We are excited to finally have the card here at this museum— just a few blocks from where it was printed at 516-518 Broadway.”
The Albany Institute will host extended hours during the winter holidays and will be open on Monday, December 28 and Tuesday, December 29 from 10 am to 5 pm, in addition to the museum’s regularly scheduled hours. More information about hours and admission rates may be found at www.albanyinstitute.org.
Photo: America’s First Christmas Card, designed by Elisa Forbes, printed and published by Richard H. Pease, Albany, New York, 1849-1850, lithograph on paper, courtesy of the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.