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by Bob Brooke

 

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ...'



Thus begins one of the best-known and most beloved poems in the English language and the most collected book in all of Christmas literature. A truly American phenomenon, it has been published in hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of different editions, in many languages and in a multitude of formats since Clement Clarke Moore first wrote it as a gift for his children on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1822. Each year new editions appear as illustrators continue to interpret the 56-line poem.

The universal appeal to both young and old alike of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” as Moore originally titled his poem, has made it an indelible part of the anticipation, mystery, mystique and memories that surround Santa Claus.

Moore’s poem first appeared anonymously in the December 23, 1823 edition of the Troy Sentinel in Troy, New York.

Legend has it that Moore had the inspiration for his poem as he was returning home on a crisp, clear Christmas Eve afternoon in 1822. The horse and sleigh with its tinkling bells and the snowy countryside caused an idea to germinate in Moore's fertile imagination. When he arrived home, he sat in front of the warm fire with his many children scampering around excitedly, for this was that special night when St. Nicholas would come to visit.



After dinner, Moore excused himself and went to his study, saying he didn’t want to be disturbed, but that he would return before the children were put to bed to present to them a surprise gift. He emerged several hours later, and the entire family sat entranced as he began to read: “was the night before Christmas, when all through the house..." With those words, Moore unknowingly created an enchanting Christmas ritual for children throughout the world.

While best known for his poem, Moore was also a well-known and respected scholar of Hebrew and Greek. A scholar at the time would have published works on a wide variety of topics including religion, languages, politics and poetry.

For most of his life, Moore felt that his scholarly works had been upstaged by what he considered a frivolous poem. In 1844, more than two decades after he wrote "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," he commissioned Bartlett & Welford to privately publish his Poems, which included for the first time his admission to its authorship.

Through his creative poem, Moore added original contributions to the iconography of our present conception of St. Nicholas—the sleigh, the eight reindeer, Santa’s fur clothing pipe, and his way of entering and exiting via the chimney instead of using a door. A few mid- to late-19th century illustrators reverted to the door, including Moore's own daughter, Mary Clarke Moore Ogden, who produced a very lovely color calligraphic illustrated edition of the poem in 1855 as a Christmas gift for her husband. Kept in a bank vault, Ogden's original manuscript is still held by Moore descendants and taken out for family viewing only on special occasions.

Over the years artists have depicted St. Nick as fat or thin, short or tall, jolly or stern. Although Clement Clarke Moore forever will be remembered as the person who truly gave St. Nicholas to the world, it took Thomas Nast, with his famous etching in the Jan. 1, 1881 issue of Harper's Weekly, to portray Santa as we know and love him today.

Illustrators, both famous and not-so-famous, have interpreted the poem over the years and even to be works of art in typography and binding, such as a 1930 edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas printed and bound by the C.J. Krehbiel Co. of Cincinnati, on handmade paper with linen-like paper-covered boards adorned with starbursts in muted shades of blue, gray and taupe.

Some of the 20th century's greatest artists, including W.W. Denslow in 1902, Jessie Willcox Smith in 1912, Frances Brundage in 1927, Elizabeth MacKinstry in 1928, Arthur Rackham in 1931, Fern Bisel Peat in 1932, Grandma Moses in 1948, and Tasha Tudor in 1962,1975,1999 have illustrated editions of “The Night Before Christmas.”

MacKinstry portrayed Santa with 12 reindeer instead of the eight envisioned by Moore. The list of noted 19th century illustrators to render the poem in published editions under a variety of titles features William Croome (1840), Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1857), Thomas Nast (circa 1870), E.F. Manning (circa 1890), and Virginia Gerson, whose beautiful 1887 chromolithograph edition, A Visit from Santa Claus, published by White Stokes & Allen in New York, is difficult to find.

Editions of the poem issued by private and small presses invariably are elegant, appealing to the touch, and beautifully presented. They possess a style that is difficult to attain in very large print runs: gold paste down labels, pretty paper-covered boards, handmade paper, and beautiful typography. Favored by collectors, this category includes a 1937 Hawthorn House edition that features 16 lovely four-color stipple illustrations from linoleum blocks by Valenti Angelo.

Other special renditions include a private printing in 1957 for the Kings County Trust Co. with illustrations by the well-known artist John dePol, a 1930 Haddon Craftsmen issue, designed by Arthur W. Rushmore and printed for George A. Zabriskie, and an edition limited to 300 copies illustrated by Hertha Sladky and sent as Christmas cards in 1948 by Louise and Johnfritz Achelis of Vienna. A 1988 edition limited to 200 copies, printed at the Ascensius Press in Portland, Maine, with color etchings by Emily Wentworth, is pure elegance. The accordion-style book's covers are deep-red linen overboards and the hand-made paper is an ideal medium for the etchings.

Miniature editions, defined as those less than three inches in both height and width, brighten any collection. Included in this category is Jane Bernier's A Visit from St. Nicholas in Winterport, Maine: Borrower's Press, 1980). Less than an inch in size, with 32 pages printed on rag paper with many hand-colored illustrations, it was published in an edition limited to 350 copies. Barbara J. Raheb's The Night Before Christmas (Agoura Hills, Calif.: Pennyweight Press, 1992), also less than an inch in size, is bound in green calf with the title in gilt and marbled end papers; it was printed in a limited edition of 300 copies. An inexpensive reprint of a 1870s edition published by the Charles E. Graham Co. measures 1 by 1 in and is a delicate but affordable facsimile of a magnificent original.

In addition to traditional printed editions, the poem (or selected words or phases) comes in a seemingly endless variety of formats: postcards, View-Master reels, voice and musical recordings, puzzles, mazes, broadsides, advent calendars, coloring and dot-to-dot books, audio and video cassettes, films, piano rolls, doll-houses, paper dolls, Christmas cards, Coca-Cola neckpieces, napkins, placemats, ornaments, sheet music, games, 19th century almanacs, a miniature Stetson hat box, children's and adult magazines, parodies and anthologies. There are pop-ups and movables, punch-outs and put-togethers, revolving pictures, hidden pictures, books within books, signed English and Braille editions.

A copy of the poem written in Moore's own hand in 1860 sold it a December 1994 auction at Christie's in New York for ;255,000, a world auction record for an American literary manuscript at the time. This same manuscript went up for sale, again at Christie's, in December 1997 and sold for $211,500. Subsequently, Neiman Marcus had it on consignment in its December 1999 Christmas Catalog for $795,000. There were no takers, not even among the many dedicated collectors of Moore's poem. This copy is still owned by the 1997 purchaser, Kaller's America Gallery of New York City, and is the only one in private hands of the four authentic manuscript copies known to exist. The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California, the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, and the New York Historical Society each hold one of the other three.

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