Special Collections & Archives Blog

A Token of My Affection: 19th Century Christmas Annuals

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 2:19 pm

christmas annuals token 1839 presentation page

Presentation page from the 1839 edition of The Token: A Christmas and New Years Present

If you were a holiday shopper in the 1830s, one item on your list might well have been an annual gift book—an anthology of illustrations, poems, stories, and essays, in an affordable but decorative binding.

Several examples of 19th century holiday gift books are now on exhibit in the ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives Research Room (ZSR 629). A Token of My Affection: 19th Century Christmas Annuals will remain on view through January.

christmas annuals keepsake 1832 mary shelley

Added engraved title page from The Keepsake (London) for 1832. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

christmas annuals garland 1831

Color lithograph title page from The Garland, or Token of Friendship (Boston) for 1851. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

Gift annuals became popular in the early 19th century, as mechanization of the printing and binding processes began to make books in general more affordable.

Publishers appealed to gift-buyers by packaging their books in decorated paper, silk, or leather bindings.

christmas annuals token with box

This copy of The Token for 1828 was bound in green printed paper over boards and issued in a protective cardboard slipcase. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

christmas annuals1848 cover

Leather binding on an 1848 Leaflets of Memory annual (Philadelphia). From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

ZSR Special Collections holds a complete run of one of the most popular American annuals, The Token: A Christmas and New Years Present. Published in Boston, it was produced by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, a prolific author and publisher better known by his pseudonym, Peter Parley.

christmas annuals tokens spines

Samuel Goodrich’s The Token: A Christmas and New Years Present, 1836 and 1840 issues. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

The Token, and its competitors in England and America, sought to appeal to both gift-buyers and young readers. Most of the early 19th century annuals are eclectic anthologies that strike a balance between educational and morally uplifting content intended to satisfy parents and other elders, and sentimental or mildly sensational stories that would keep the recipients entertained—and asking for next year’s volume.

poe purloined letter

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter” was first published in The Gift for 1845, a Philadelphia annual. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

The contents often included original contributions from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

christmas annuals mary shelley

“The Dream,” which appeared in The Keepsake for 1832, was one of many short stories that Mary Shelley wrote for gift annuals. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

The heyday of the holiday annual anthology was the 1820s-1840s. The genre persisted throughout the 19th century, but later annuals had to compete with other types of gift books and with a flood of non-holiday-specific publications timed for the Christmas market.

mrs lirriper 1863

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) is of course his most famous holiday story. But Dickens published many other Christmas books, including an annual special issue of his magazine All the Year Round. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

beetons fortunate island

This 1880 annual from London publisher Samuel Orchart Beeton featured contributions from Max Adeler and others. The 1887 Beeton’s Annual would become famous for introducing Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet.” From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

Some gift annuals were published by religious, social, or philanthropic organizations. These served the dual purpose of raising funds for the organizations and for spreading their messages.

christmas annuals temperance

The Sons of Temperance of North America published the National Temperance Offering as an annual gift book. This issue, in typical mid-century decorated cloth, is from 1851. From the ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

Illustrations were an important part of the gift book package. Early in the 19th century, the new technique of steel engraving allowed for a high level of detail even in small illustrations. In the 1840s, the invention of color lithography made it possible for the first time to mass produce color illustrations.

christmas annuals1848 lithograph title page

Color lithograph illustration from Leaflets of Memory: An Illuminated Annual (Philadelphia, 1848). From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

christmas annuals pears ad

Advertisers also took advantage of the new technique for printing in color. This ad for Pears soap, which doubles as a “test for colour blindness,” appeared in the 1848 Leaflets of Memory. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

Few of the holiday gift books in ZSR Special Collections are in pristine condition. Most have been well-read, and many bear traces of their original owners.

christmas annuals bookmarks

Bookmarks found in 19th century gift annuals from the ZSR Library Special Collections. One is crocheted lace, the other is made from human hair.

christmas annuals token inscription mary davis

Mary W. Davis of Newton, Mass. used the endpapers of her copy of The Token for 1830 to show off her considerable skill with a pen. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

girls own annual crayoned illustration

A reader of The Girl’s Own Annual (London, 1888) applied her crayons to many of the volume’s engraved illustrations. From ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives.

Those of us with reading material of any kind on our holiday wish lists can’t help but feel a kinship with our fellow book enthusiasts from the 19th century and their quirky, charming, and well-thumbed gifts!

For more information about the exhibit, contact Special Collections & Archives.

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent (1941)

Thursday, December 5, 2013 4:34 pm

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent, was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

A Northern Christmas by Rockwell Kent was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

American artist Rockwell Kent spent Christmas 1918 in a small cabin on an island off the south coast of Alaska. More than twenty years later he recalled the experience in words and woodcut illustrations in a holiday gift book titled A Northern Christmas.

Title page from A Northern Christmas

Title page from A Northern Christmas

The small book was published by the American Artists Group, an organization founded in 1935 for the purpose of providing art for the masses and, in the process, creating a market for artists to earn a living during the difficult years of the Depression. Many prominent artists were members, including Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Max Weber, and Eugene Speicher. The American Artists Group published small monographs and offered unsigned engravings, lithographs, and woodcut prints for sale at very affordable prices. But the group was perhaps best  known for its yearly offerings of Christmas cards designed by its artists. In 1941 they also began a series of small holiday gift books, of which A Northern Christmas was the first.

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Let it snow or rain and grow dark at midday! The better shall be our good Christmas cheer within. This is the true Christmas land. The day should be dark, the house further overshadowed by the woods, tall and black. And there in the midst of that somber, dreadful gloom the Christmas tree should blaze in glory unrivaled by moon or sun or star.

Rockwell Kent, A Northern Christmas

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was born and educated in New York. His first art teacher was William Merritt Chase; later he studied with Abbott Handerson Thayer, Robert Henri, and Kenneth Hayes Miller.  Kent also trained as an architectural draftsman and was an accomplished carpenter. He worked in a variety of artistic media, but he is best known for his prints and for his many illustrations for classic literary works like Candide, Leaves of Grass, The Canterbury Tales, and, perhaps most famously, Moby Dick.

Rockwell Kent's famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Rockwell Kent’s famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Kent also wrote and illustrated several of his own books, many of them memoirs of his extensive travels. He often sought out remote areas of untouched wilderness for artistic inspiration. In 1918-19 he spent several months in Alaska with his young son (also named Rockwell).  The resulting book, called Wilderness, was published by G. P. Putnam in 1920.

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent's Wilderness (1920)

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness (1920)

The south coast of the mainland of Alaska is a wilderness of spruce-clad mountains whose outlying, isolated peaks are islands. On one of these we lived, a father and his eight-year-old son. . . . the man in pursuit of his profession, the boy in pursuit of what of education lay in doing things, and both in that pursuit of happiness which, with whatever right, is still what every living creature wants. . . .

Of the fullness of the days–fullness of work and thought, of play, of little happenings, of uneventful peace–we kept record. That record is a book: its name is WILDERNESS. From WILDERNESS these notes about a happy Christmas in the north are drawn.

A Northern Christmas

The Rockwell Kent Papers in the Archives of American Art include extensive correspondence between Kent and Samuel Golden of the American Artists Group. In the 1941 correspondence they discuss all aspects of the production of A Northern Christmas, beginning with the necessity of getting permission from G. P. Putnam for the use of excerpts and illustrations from Wilderness. The publisher at first demanded a rather steep fee but became more reasonable after a “sharply worded letter” from Kent. In the end, Kent insisted that Putnam’s cooperation should be acknowledged in the colophon of A Northern Christmas.

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

A Northern Christmas  consisted mostly of excerpts from Wilderness, along with an introduction and a few new illustrations.

From A Northern Christmas

From A Northern Christmas

For Rockwell Kent, the wilderness idyll was a welcome respite from the materialism of the modern world. In the excerpts chosen for A Northern Christmas, Kent describes, in words and pictures, the spare and simple Christmas that he and his son celebrated with their landlord, an old Swedish homesteader named Olson.  The presents are few– young Rockwell receives a pocket knife, some old National Geographic magazines, and a broken fountain pen, but he “sits on the bed looking at the things as if they were the most wonderful gifts.” The holiday proves all the more memorable for its minimalism.

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

The food is good and plentiful, the night is long, only the Christmas candles are short-lived and we extinguish them to save them for another time. Finally, as the night deepens, Olson leaves us amid mutual expressions of delight in one another’s friendship, and Rockwell and I tumble into bed.

A Northern Christmas

Rockwell Kent wrote and illustrated a very different gift book for the American Artists Group the next year. The 1942 book, called On Earth Peace, is a rather bleak wartime fable about a Jazz Age princess humbled by loss and privation.

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent's gift book for 1942

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent’s gift book for 1942

Kent’s popularity as an artist waned somewhat after the war. His style fell out of fashion in the age of abstract expressionism, and his ongoing involvement in  socialist causes aroused suspicion in the Red-baiting 1950s. At one point Kent’s passport was revoked, and he sued to have it reinstated. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, a landmark decision that made it more difficult for the government to curtail a citizen’s right to travel.  Kent continued to work for progressive causes and tried to promote improved relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

The items pictured here are all held by ZSR Library’s Special Collections. The library has a sizeable collection of Rockwell Kent books, most of them previously owned by publisher Lynwood Giacomini, whose collection of American literature was purchased by the library in 1976. Giacomini kept up a friendly correspondence with many authors, and his collection includes a few typed letters from Rockwell Kent.


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