1950s holiday cheer, and kitsch old & new
One day last week, I spent the morning compiling and digitizing documents to go in an exhibit case we have in the lobby of the Archives, and the goal was to fill it with Christmas-y documents that we have there at the Archives. Hard when you’re a non-religious institution that does not keep records of… I don’t know, religious events? So I found some WWI draft cards with names like “Dasher” and “Reindeer” and “Santy Claus” (A REAL PERSON!) and the rest of the reindeer. I also pulled a man named Partridge and a man named Peartree, my favorite pairing.
But we used some TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) photos from the 1950s, where someone had gone around and documented what people did with electricity. (It is wonderfully fantastic that someone has this job. I imagine an amateur photographer trying to expand his novice abilities.) One of those uses for electricity was Christmas decoration, in the home and outside the home. It is a fantastic collections of photos, and I was ogling over them, studying every bit of each photo–having just ended an entire semester in material culture class where we studied kitsch, consumerism, and what people buy, make, and keep in their lives. So this set of photos was an absolute treat to pour over, one at a time. I want to digitize some for myself, they are so special. So far I have digitized three of them, the one above, and two that I will be printing and framing for my mom.
They are accidentally artistic. I think whoever was taking the photos was trying to make them look classy and professional, setting up backdrops, and placing each item in a vignette. But the background walls, floors, electricity outlets, and other elements belie all that, making them ironic, stark and cold, and all the more fascinating. The photographer obviously had the rights kinds of professional equipment. Someday, I would love to write some sort of scholarly piece on the kitsch of Christmas decor in the 1950s, using this goldmine of photos.
Each one was more mistakenly charming than the last. I was examining the light fixtures, the wall colors, the window blinds, the chairs, the floor tiles, the table designs, and the use of shadows–all elements surrounding the actual focal points. I also found each item to grandly reflect the same kind of kitschy things we have continued to use over the years, and that take on more memory and sentimental meaning for us as the years go by. We realize over time the things we loved as children or adults may have been a bit tacky, or cheap, or downright weird, but this often endears holiday decorations to us more. We keep plenty of things we’ve collected for the holidays that we might not otherwise keep, because of the way we feel around this season, the memories we keep of family members being around us, or of the effort they may have put into making an item. Also, since we don’t have to look at them all year, and they are packed away all that time, they are welcomed back into our vistas each year more cheerfully than if we had had to look at the holly creation atop a dresser all year round.
We didn’t talk extensively about holiday fare in my class, but we talked about style, kitsch, memory items, family heirlooms, items associated with loss, love, memorial, and all of these things influence our relationship to and meaning applied to the holiday season, and Christmas.
I know there are particular things I will never forget in homes that have been the backdrop to Christmas memories: I have vey specific memories of my Auntie Nessa’s house from the early and mid ’90s, plush carpets, low lights, Amy Grant playing, a very tall Christmas tree, and villages set up with snow and a pathway across one of her long tables. (This is a strange memory to keep, since we have not been to that house since this era, she no longer owns it, nor hosts Christmas events.) My grandma and grandpa’s houses, both the Maple Street and Birch Street locations, in Kingsford, harbor Christmas Eve memories too, warm lighting and protection from the outside cold, so many cookies–the best gingerbread–I could never begin to eat them all, or fathom recreating the amount. Loving family around me, socked feet, Christmas clothing, taking pictures. Grandma’s tree with the ornaments we’d all made for her decades ago by now. And my parents’ homes through the years, always filled with happy decorations, numerous themed trees gracing corners and cozy spots throughout. My mom often did up a few together, a little Christmas tree forest, including the Happy Meal toy tree that took us upwards of 15 years to collect toys for, and took a few years in construction itself as well–this tree continues to make children happy and joyful, even as my Mom’s own children have grown and moved out of the house. I always loved how very tall and thin it is, taking on a caricature nature that reflects all the playful toys that grace its branches; some of those ditties are from the late 1980s, my earliest days of youth. Vintage!
I have wonderful memories of Christmas holidays across many homes, northern and southern locales. Some have been frozen and snowy, others bright and downright sunny, and they all mean something to me, combining to create my own meaning of the season, and adding to how I create my own space in my adult homes each year.
Anyway, these historical images got my rejoicing about Christmas decorating of days gone by, when my Dad was a small boy and my Mom was not yet born. I don’t know how prevalent these pieces were back then, in 1954, but it’s worth investigating, in a future project, and definitely worth having kept, for the moment.
I hope everyone is enjoying their holiday season, spending time with family and good friends, recalling years past, and making new memories. This includes creating your own craft, art, and yes, kitsch, to add cheer and spirit to this lovely time of year.