American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

04 December 2019

The American and British Authors of Today’s Secular ‘Traditional Christmas’

Washington Irving is today perhaps best remembered for the stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, first published in 1819/20.  They were included in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which, in its initial serialisation and then in book form, was a huge and perennial bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.1  However, it is the Sketch Book’s five chapters depicting an English country Christmas at the Yorkshire home of a fictional Squire Bracebridge that have had the greater lasting impact.  For it was in those chapters that Irving was successful in emphasising the importance of both preserving and creating cherished Christmas traditions.  

The quality of Irving’s prose reinforced his evocation of Christmas. His description of the Waits, a musical band of night watchmen, being a prime example: ‘I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window.  I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighbouring village.  They went round the house, playing under the windows.  I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly.  The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment.  The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight.  I listened and listened—they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.’2

Group of musical night watchmen playing music in the snow around a lamp on the floor outside a large building.
Cecil Aldin’s illustration of the Waits in Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark: 12350.p.25.

Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Irving, writing to the American, ‘I should like to travel with you, outside the last of the coaches, down to Bracebridge Hall.’  There can be no doubt that Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Dingley Dell was inspired by Irving, as, in spirit, was ‘Christmas Festivities’ in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz.  However, Dickens gave the latter an urban setting, in London and, more narrowly than in Pickwick, centred his account on the family, thus moving it closer to today’s celebrations.  Dickens’s example encouraged the inclusion of all one’s kinfolk: ‘The Christmas family-party that we mean, is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two’s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next.  No.  It is an annual gathering of all the accessible members of the family, young or old, rich or poor.’3

large Christmas dinner in the nineteenth century
‘Christmas Dinner’, illustration by R Seymour from: Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London: William Spooner, 1836; shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302

 

Title page of Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an illustration on the left hand side of a couple dancing while being watched by others
First Edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with John Leech’s illustration of ‘Mr Fezziwig’s Ball’. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843; shelfmark: C.117.b.67.

Dickens, the writer of one of the greatest Christmas stories in A Christmas Carol, was just one of a number of authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who did so much to create lasting Christmas traditions during the half century before 1870.  And among them was a succession of imaginative Americans who, between them, produced the phenomenon that, from the end of that period, became modern Christmas’s most popular secular figure on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was then that one of the greatest of Anglo-American mergers began: with Britain’s Father Christmas keeping his name and, mostly, his robe, but for the first time assuming the colour and character of America’s Santa Claus.

Father Christmas is certainly rather older than his American cousin.  He first became the effective personification of the midwinter festival in ‘Christmas, his Masque’, written by Ben Jonson and staged for King James I & VI by Inigo Jones in 1616.  The character of ‘Christmas’, ‘Captain Christmas’, ‘Old Christmas’, ‘Christmas of London’ and Father Christmas, as he finally came to be called, was created as a satirical figure in order to mock the Puritans and their opposition to the concept of celebrating Christmas as a joyous festival.  However, Father Christmas was not a well-defined figure and so he would remain for two-and-a-half centuries.

A Father Christmas figure in a kind of ornate gothic doorway with other much smaller characters around him
Robert Seymour's illustration recreating the original 'Christmas' figure from Ben Jonson's 'Christmas, his Masque' in Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.
An early Father Christmas character looking rather wild sitting on a goat with holly flowing from his hair and a steaming wassail bowl in his right hand.
Robert Seymour's illustration of 'Old Christmas' from Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.


As for the origin of Santa Claus, we need once again to turn to Washington Irving and, this time, to what began as a joke.  Ten years before his Sketch Book, Irving satirised those New Yorkers who he thought over keen to create false traditions for their fast-expanding metropolis.  In A History of New York he invented a story about the very founding of the city, when the Catholic St Nicholas, known by the Dutch as Sinterklaas, flew over Manhattan ‘in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children’ and directed the elders to site their settlement there. From this unlikely beginning, St Nicholas / Sinterklaas found favour in America.  A dozen years later, Clement Clarke Moore gave him a team of reindeer and a cheery personality in the poem best known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and shortly afterwards the figure became generally known as Santa Claus.  Finally, in the 1860s, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began his creation of the physical image which, with a few minor additions, has remained to this day. 

Jolly looking Santa Claus holding lots of presents and a long thin pipe
'Merry Old Santa Claus', illustration by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1 January 1881; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 

By the end of the 1860s, Santa Claus the present-giver was becoming very popular with American children and also, understandably, with the manufacturers of presents.  Improved transatlantic communications enabled Santa to skip quickly across the Atlantic.  His appeal to children was and is obvious: here was someone who brought more presents!  As for the adult British public, a change of name to Father Christmas and an assumption of hundreds of years of British heritage quickly turned this kindly American import into a seemingly timeless British figure.  Whether called Santa Claus or Father Christmas, he has become the happy personification of the modern secular Christmastime.

Notes:

  1. Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark 12350.p.25. 
  2. From 'Christmas Eve', in Washington Irving, The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; shelfmark YK.1996.a.13992.
  3. Charles Dickens, 'Christmas Festivities' (1835) republished as 'A Christmas Dinner' in Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every day life and every-day people. London: Chapman & Hall, 1902; shelfmark 012613.g.3.
  4. Washington Irving, A History of New York. London: J Murray, 1820; shelfmark DRT 838.f.8

George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Makin Fellow of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and the author of Christmas Traditions: A Celebration of Festive Lore (British Library Publishing, £12.99).   There are still a few tickets available for the second of his two fun talks on Christmas Traditions, at the British Library on 10th December.  

22 November 2019

Literary lip warmers for Movember

Over the past few years the month of November has become synonymous with the moustache all in the name of Movember – the leading global organisation committed to changing the face of men's health.

So we thought it was only right to pay homage to some of our favourite bros with enviously good mos…

Ralph Ellison

Black and white photo of author Ralph Ellison in front of bookcase
Image of Ralph Ellison from Wikimedia Commons sourced from US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

As sharp as the unnamed narrator in his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's well-groomed moustache demands attention and admiration. Before embarking on a writing career, Ellison was a trumpet player and music student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; the all-black university found by Booker T. Washington which would become the model for the college in Invisible Man. Much attention has been paid to the links between Ellison's writing and the composition techniques used in jazz, particularly his use of solos, improvisation and movement as literary devices in Invisible Man. His pencil-thin moustache worked equally well with both of his talents; writer and jazz aficionado.

Suggested reading

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (New York : New American Library of World Literature, 1964). Shelfmark X.907/2412.

Fascinating rhythm : reading jazz in American writing by David Yaffe  (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2006). Shelfmark YC.2006.a.7114                
 

Dashiell Hammett

Photograph of Smart Set: Hammett's first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922
Photograph of Smart Set from the British Library's collections (shelfmark P.P.6383.ah.)

Perfectly befitting the innovative creator of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett’s personal style was striking and urbane: a neat, black moustache brilliantly contrasting with a shock of white hair. Surprisingly, given the impact of his fiction, Hammett’s fiction-writing career lasted only twelve years. His first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922. With The Maltese Falcon (1930), he became a literary sensation. But by 1934 he had essentially retired from writing.

Edgar Allan Poe(vember)

Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley showing Poe's black hair and moustache
Portrait of Poe from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley (shelfmark 7852.t.19.)

With hair as black as a raven, no one wears the lampshade moustache quite like Edgar Allan Poe. The images of Poe that I’ve seen have always seemed so melancholy and, given the nature of his tales, I assumed his character to be so too. So I was surprised to find in a short article by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss, in Scribner's Monthly from 1878, a description of Poe that quite counters this idea: ‘… he appeared … invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood … quietly amused … with a playful sarcasm.’ (p 709)  

As well as his disposition, Mrs Weiss offers quite the description of Poe’s trademark facial hair: ‘He wore a dark mustache, scrupulously kept, but not entirely concealing a slightly contracted expression of the mouth, and an occasional twitching of the upper lip, resembling a sneer … There was in it nothing of ill-nature, but much of sarcasm…’ (p 711).

Aubrey Beardsley’s trademark style captures Poe’s features in all their glory in this portrait printed in with a collection of illustrations in 1926 (7852.t.19.). The Library holds plenty of items by this moustached maverick including a first edition of Tamerlane (C.34.b.60.), which Poe authored under simply ‘a Bostonian’, rather than his real name.

Suggested reading

The Smart Set: A magazine of cleverness (New York: 1900–25) shelfmark: P.P.6383.ah.

The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus: The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Case, Red Harvest & four short stories by Dashiell Hammett (London: Cassell & Co, 1950) shelfmark: 12646.h.17.

Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss (in Scribner's Monthly, Nov 1777 to April 1878; New-York: Scribner & Co, 1878; Digitised by Google, original from University of Michigan)

Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley (Indianapolis: Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926) shelfmark: 7852.t.19.

Tamerlane, and other poems by a Bostonian (Boston: C. F. S. Thomas, 1827) shelfmark: C.34.b.60.

 

Nick Cave

 

Photo of Nick Cave performing on stage
Image of Nick Cave from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Bubamara
 

The musician and author sported an enviable  moustache for the better part of a decade until, in the fog of jet lag following a long haul flight, his wife convinced him to shave it off. His moustache veered between a polished handlebar and a pure '70s sleaze 'tache during the Grinderman era; his obvious delight in the aesthetics of facial hair placed him well to judge the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in Brighton in 2007.

Suggested reading

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, Edinburgh : Canongate, 2009.  Shelfmark Nov.2010/137           
 
And the Ass saw the Angel by Nick Cave, London : Penguin, 1990, c1989. Shelfmark H.2001/1388
     
              

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the American Studies team

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

For the third year running the British Library has worked with the British Council for Fashion on a Research Collaboration Project and this year radical Glaswegian designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s Instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year. This was followed by a Masterclass in October organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition

Charles Jeffrey considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the British Library resources. A show and tell is an interactive part of the Masterclass which is run as part of the project. It gives curators the opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of particularly visually intriguing collection items. 

Model on catwalk showing example of collection created by Charles Jeffrey Loverboy
‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – the British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

 

In this blog post the Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. You can see the selections from the European team on their blog on the same topic. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’ as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief. 

 

Opening of Kenneth Patchen's Glory never guesses & other stories showing yellow and orange pages with text and zebra and butterfly in the background
Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses & other stories, [United States?], 1955 (RF.2017.b.42)

 

Glory never guesses & other pages by Kenneth Patchen

Published in the United States in the summer of 1955, although the exact location and publisher remains ambiguous, this vibrant collection of 18 poems from the original manuscript pages of American poet Kenneth Patchen features decorations and drawings reproduced through silk screening.

Various flora and fauna, including birds, turtles, butterflies and a zebra, and looping elaborate script, adorn the pages of delicate Japanese paper. Only 200 copies, all hand-run, were produced by Frank Bacher. Patchen became well-known in poetry circles for reading his work with jazz as an accompaniment, and you can almost hear the colourful play and rhythm of the words jump up from the page thanks to Bacher’s lively and rich reproduction.

We chose this item for the show and tell not just for its visual appeal, but also because we thought its use of materials, textures and techniques might spur some inspiration. For those interested in the materiality of books and the book form, there is a thematic vein of such amongst a number of artists’ books held at the Library including metal books (like HS.74/2323), wax books (such as RF.2018.a.56) and even coffee-stained books (see Cup.550.g.669).

Rachael – Curator, North American Published Collections

 

Five images showing colourful cover and inside pages of Cartonera books from Latin America
Cartonera books from Latin America

 

Cartonera books from Latin America

As history has often taught, there are always unexpected opportunities that arise from moments of crisis. The Cartonera phenomenon is a happy Fenix arising from the cardboards piles of the streets.

When Argentina, experienced the great economic depression of the years 1998-2002,  with the consequence of a huge job loss, and the obvious recession of the publishing and cultural sectors,  people started pouring out the streets not only for rioting but also to find an alternative way of life.

Cardboard pickers, cartoneros, started collecting paper and cardboard from the street finding the selling profitable. Eloísa Cartonera, became the first Cartonera publisher that, from 2001-2, started producing books “con cartón comprado a los cartoneros en la vía pública” (with cardboard bought from the cardboard pickers from the streets), although this is not a completely new phenomenon since it arguably takes its primordial roots from the 70’.

The aim of the Cartonera publishers was, since the beginning, to spread poetry and literature at a mass level in Latin America, and at a very low price.

Since then very well established writers, artists and poets, have donated or created for the cause, such as Washington Cucurto. A founder of Eloisa Cartonera and cult author whose realism compositions feature negritude, poverty and homosexuality in Latin America. 

I selected the hand-made Cartonera books for the show and tell for the visual aspect of their recycled appeal alongside their inspiring potential to open the scope for creativity.

Annalisa – Cataloguer, American Collections

 

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January when, during a reverse show and tell, students will reveal/show their work inspired by the British Library collections. 

For featured European collection items please see the parallel European studies blog.

 

Blog by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

 

Suggested reading

Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses: & other pages. [United States?] : [publisher not identified], [1955] RF.2017.b.42

Ricardo Piglia, The pianist (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2011.a.2591

Carlos D'Angelis, No ve la mía (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2010.a.6178

Dulcinéia Catadora [ed.], Em mãos ([Brazil], [2013]) RF.2019.a.343

Yarezi Salazar, El secreto de mi tía abuela ([Monterrey, Mexico], [2010]) RF.2019.a.328 

Carlos Emílio Corrêa, A outra forma da ilha de goa (Lima [Paraguay], [2018]) RF.2019.a.330