Green Cards

No graceful transition here–from the crisis in Japan to St. Patrick’s Day!  I can’t help it; it is St. Patrick’s Day and I continue to be amazed at the timely productivity of the nineteenth and early twentieth century greetings card industry.  The only holidays that we still recognize with cards today are Christmas and Valentine’s Day, but a century ago every single holiday had a card:  New Year’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, Easter, July 4th,  Halloween, Thanksgiving, and most definitely St. Patrick’s Day.  I think the major difference in greeting between then and now (besides the telephone and the computer) is that today we have blank cards, as well as cards to express sympathy and mark other personal milestones, whether joyful or sad.  People in the past wrote actual letters, expressing their personal sentiments, rather than relying on a card.  I’ve got all these monogrammed notecards but I seldom use them; instead I just run out and buy a pre-written card.

St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect day for greeting-card manufacturers (like Valentine’s Day) as it’s not a  particularly solemn holiday and it has associations with imagery that is both cute and colorful.  The postcard seems to have been the most popular form of St. Patrick’s Day greeting:  below is a sampling from the 1890s and 19 “aughts”, from the large collection of cards at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

These postcards are frivolous, but other forms of St. Patrick’s Day commemoration carried a more serious message.  The celebration of the day (and the Saint) seems to have been interwoven with other movements and messages in the nineteenth century, most emphatically the temperance movement and nationalism–both Irish and American.  Popular songs seemed to be particularly focused on rallying the troops, for conflicts both in America and “back home”.  There was obviously fierce pride among the Irish Americans because of their participation in the Civil War, and equally fierce hatred of the English occupiers of their native land.  The rather militant lyrics of the song  “St. Patrick’s Day no. 2”, published in New York in the later nineteenth century, are a good example of the latter sentiment:

Duke University Library Digital Collections, American Song Sheets

The last stanza reads:  So now let us all attend to the callOf our CountryWho thus to her sons seem to sayThe time has come now; so come with a vow. To drive out the Saxon, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Perhaps because of the perception that Irish Americans were more attached to their native land than their adopted one, a series of popular prints and cards were published from the 1870s on that emphasized dual loyalties, illustrated by the prominent placement of intertwined American and Irish flags.  The message was:  It’s St. Patrick’s Day IN AMERICA.


Duval & Hunter Lithograph, Philadelphia, 1872


Thomas Kelly Lithograph, New York, 1874

One response to “Green Cards

  • thedailydish

    Fascinating. Such a wonderful way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by looking back through time. So odd that it was interwoven w/the temperance movement back in the day and now seems so associated w/ over-indulgence!

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