The early weeks of December often bring a welcome variety to one’s mailbox: Christmas cards. These envelopes, a nice respite from the usual junk mail and bills, reflect a long-held tradition of exchanging postal pleasantries at Christmastime. The Weeks family, who built Salisbury House in the 1920s, kept this custom as well. Our collections here at the museum contain a few samples of the Weekses’ own Christmas cards, and other cards and holiday greetings penned by well-known artists and writers of the twentieth century.
The exchange of Christmas cards was a practice first established in the mid-1800s. A British businessman, Sir Henry Cole, is typically credited with producing the first commercial holiday card in 1843. One of the Cole originals sold at auction in 2001 for over £22,000.
By the turn of the twentieth century, this December ritual had taken hold in Europe and the United States. Indeed, a young Carl Weeks had his own Christmas cards printed around this time. The card pictured below is undated, but the fact that the text includes only Carl’s name – and not Edith, whom he married in 1907 – suggests the piece was printed sometime around 1900 (though, as we will see, Carl did not uniformly include Edith’s name on the family Christmas card even after their marriage).
After the completion of Salisbury House in 1928, the family home often illustrated the Weekses’ Christmas cards.
The Weeks boys also appeared in the annual Christmas card from time to time. A handwritten date on the back of the card pictured below indicates that it was sent “around 1938.” This is curious, given the inscription: “Holiday Greetings from the Three Bachelors of Salisbury House.”
First of all, the only unmarried Weeks man around 1938 was Lafe (the youngest son, standing in the image below). William was married in 1935. Carl, of course, was married to Edith. Perhaps “Three Bachelors” was meant as a joke…but one wonders if Edith or Margaret (William’s wife) found it particularly funny!
In addition to sending out holiday cards, the Weekses also received them from a variety of friends and acquaintances. Joseph Stella, a prolific Italian-American artist of the twentieth century, maintained a long relationship with Carl and Edith. Correspondence over the years between the Weekses and the Stellas often included a Christmas greeting.
More broadly, though, Carl and Edith were important patrons of Stella’s work. Stella inscribed a 1926 photograph of himself in the process of painting The Apotheosis of the Rose, one of his major works, with thanks to the Weeks family for supporting his artistic endeavors. The Rose now hangs in Salisbury House.
The Weekses and Stella remained in touch. From Paris in 1931, Stella penned the following letter:
Paris – Dec. 14 – 1931
Dear Mr. Weeks,
For Christmas I send to you and to Mrs. Weeks my best wishes.
Another holiday greeting, addressed to Carl at his office, came from the writer Maurine Whipple in 1942. Extant correspondence between Whipple and Weeks was quite extensive, and suggested a unique relationship that was reflected in her 1942 Christmas card.
Dec. 17, ‘42
Dear Bro in the Gospel:
Just a word of cheer and Season’s Greeting before I go back to my corner of the Lord’s vineyard. Indeed I am blessed to have a corner to go back to! Since the invasion of the gentiles into our City of Saints the weather has turned so foul that truly I think the Lord is pouring out His wrath. At any rate, I have had four wisdom teeth out and am completely recovered from last fall’s accident and am now ready to work fifteen hours a day for the Arizona Strip, of which you are slated to receive the first autographed copy! (If I hear from you someday, that is. I am worried – Satan is abroad!)
The year prior to this Christmas missive, Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, a novel about the Mormon religion, was published to widespread popular and critical acclaim. This holiday letter from Whipple to Weeks took place at a time in which she was increasingly well-known on the national stage.
Additionally, the historical backdrop of the early 1940s is apparent within this exchange. December 17, 1942: the United States had been engaged in World War II for almost exactly one year. The envelope that landed on Weeks’ desk advertised for war bonds and stamps:
Yet another singular Christmas card arrived at Salisbury House in December 1948. Mailed to the Weekses from Philip Duschnes, a prominent New York bookseller, the envelope included an astonishing supplement. A leaf from a fifteenth-century manuscript, intricately illuminated on vellum, was enclosed in a paper mat.
An inscription inside the card provided additional identifying information:
Philip Duschnes became well-known during his career as a bookseller for offering high-quality pieces and also for the practice of selling single leaves from significant works. Weeks, a devoted bibliophile, was clearly a good customer.
Duschnes often collaborated with Otto Ege, a dean at the Cleveland School of Art and lecturer at (Case) Western Reserve University in Cleveland. One of their joint efforts, titled Original Leaves from Famous Books: Nine Centures, 1122 A.D. – 1923 A.D. remains in the Salisbury House collection today. The collection, one of fifty made available for purchase, went on the market in 1949. Leaves from the “famous books” were placed in a paper mat and included a brief description penned by Ege.
This leaf came from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Ethics, detailed below by Ege.
As Ege notes, a secular writer likely penned this 1365 manuscript. Compared to the leaf from the Book of Hours included in Duschnes’ Christmas card above, marked differences appear in the production of the manuscripts that suggest the secular versus the religious origins of each.
As amazing as the Duschnes, Whipple, and Stella pieces are, however, there is yet another object in the Salisbury House collections that takes the cool quotient up a notch. The piece initially appears to be a fun, vintage-y Christmas postcard:
Your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, this is a Christmas card signed by James Joyce and Nora [Barnacle] Joyce.
The massive geek-out does not stop there. Attempts to date the postcard yielded a trove of information that takes this piece to epic levels of amazing.
We started with the stamp. Although the postmark date remained illegible, we were able to track down some reliable-looking information about the stamp’s origins. Issued in 1927 and dedicated to the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot, the commemorative stamp suggests that the postcard probably dates to the late 1920s.
There’s more. The Christmas postcard is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. James Stephens.
James Stephens, like Joyce, was an Irish-born writer. According to an article by Richard R. Finneran published in the James Joyce Quarterly, the two men did not immediately become friends. Indeed, their relationship remained somewhat antagonistic until the 1920s. Despite this early frostiness, Joyce and Stephens agreed around 1927-1929 that, should Joyce face insurmountable difficulties in completing Finnegan’s Wake, Stephens would finish the work for him.
This postcard, held here at Salisbury House, surely dates to this very time, during which Joyce and Stephens cemented their friendship and struck their agreement regarding Finnegan’s Wake.
This postcard, held here in the Salisbury House collections, illuminates the story of one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century.