Interview with Kenneth L. Ames: American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960
Kenneth L. Ames, professor and curator of American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960, received a BA from Carleton College and MA and PhD degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He has held positions at Franklin & Marshall College, the H. F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, and the New York State Museum. At the BGC, he offers courses in the art and material culture of the United States and Western Europe. He is the author of Beyond Necessity: Art in the Folk Tradition and Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, winner of the Victorian Society in America’s Henry-Russell Hitchcock Award for 1993. Books he has edited and co-edited include Victorian Furniture; Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings in America 1650–1920: An Annotated Bibliography; Ideas and Images: Developing Interpretive History Exhibits; and The Material Culture of Gender/The Gender of Material Culture.
What is the Christmas card exhibition?
The exhibition is an offshoot of the Christmas card book. The Christmas card book, in turn, is the major product of the Christmas card project, which took the form of a two-semester Christmas card course. The exhibition was always part of the plan but because books typically take longer to produce than exhibitions, it seemed prudent to think the book through, then extract from it whatever might work best (or at least tolerably well) in an exhibition format.
The exhibition is primarily a visual experience, perhaps too much so. I can imagine that some viewers would appreciate more factual matter, a brief chronology of Christmas card types, formats, and styles, for instance, or commentary about significant artists and publishers. As finally constructed, the exhibition has five components, flanked by a brief introduction and conclusion. The first, which runs around the perimeter of the space, presents the major clusters of Christmas card imagery, each illustrated by five cards. The other four components, in no designated order, deal with business Christmas cards; creativity; surfaces and processes; and what might simply be called history. All sections are meant to be suggestive only. There is nothing definitive about the exhibition. It might best be understood as an invitation to explore an undervalued but highly accessible (and satisfying) category of material and visual culture from the American past.
How did you get interested in Christmas cards?
I came upon Christmas cards entirely by accident. Although they had been part of my childhood (and lesser parts of my early adulthood), I had not paid them much attention. Rather later in life I more or less accidentally came upon an accumulation of Christmas cards, in this case Christmas postcards from about 1910, all sent to the same addressee, who had apparently saved them for some eighty years or so. What struck me at the time were the really engaging designs and brilliant colors of many of these cards. I thought they were quite wonderful. I soon found out that, for the most part, Christmas cards from the early twentieth century cost little or nothing to acquire. In the course of a couple of buying campaigns I amassed a few thousand cards. All of the cards subsequently included in the book and exhibition are from that hoard.
Who else was involved in the project?
Students got into the act when I decided to offer a course that would lead to a publication and exhibition. The Focus Gallery venture had been launched and I was intent on identifying a class of material culture that would fit within that framework. I thought that the more direct access that students had to the objects they were studying, the better. That meant working with goods in private hands rather than in the collection of a museum. I also though it would be intriguing to work with a category of goods that had undeniable cultural significance and were aesthetically engaging but, at least until now, had attracted little scholarly interest. And so, Christmas cards. What truly surprised me was the number of students who decided to sign on. I thought I would be lucky if two or three enrolled in the class but a good many more came along for the adventure.
Describe the Christmas card book?
I don’t know if it is evident in the final product, but the truth is that it took a very long time to figure out exactly what the book should be. The course started out with a mountain of Christmas cards and a question: What are we going to do with these? The answer was not immediately obvious. Over time we decided to concentrate on imagery. That decision, in turn, led to an extensive process of sorting and sifting. In the end, the categories that emerged through this process came to constitute the bulk of the contents of the book. I wrote a little matter to go fore and aft but about two-thirds of these twenty-five category-specific sections were, to greater or lesser degree, student work. In order to give the book something of the quality of a field guide, we opted to keep essays brief but to augment them with suggestive timelines. We considered including timelines in the exhibition but, I think correctly, decided that they would have cluttered up an already fairly dense exhibition and so left them out.
In the end, the exhibition is a visually rich experience but rather light on ideas. The book is more ideational and even occasionally provocative but its visual impact is constrained by the limitations of format. In other words, and as we all recognize, books and exhibitions are not—and cannot be—the same.
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