Legend has it that many an Irishman, upon departing his native village for the trek that would take him across the ocean to America, would pause for a second and then tuck a bit of turf into his slender luggage. Thus, though in time he became an American citizen, a piece of his beloved Emerald Isle would always be near his heart.
This love for both the land of their birth and their new homeland helps to explain the preponderance of Irish and American symbols found on greeting postcards published for St. Patrick’s Day nearly a century ago.
Of the many holidays and celebrations we enjoy each year, only three – St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and Columbus Day have origins in the arrival of a specific nationality to our shores.
The Irish, who came in large numbers to this country throughout the 19th century, embraced March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, as their special day. It slowly emerged as a wonderful blend of Irish pride and American patriotism, as the Irish love and appreciation of America counterbalanced the strong tug that the Emerald Isle exerted upon her former sons and daughters and their descendants.
The Irish, mainly Anglo-Irish and followers of the Anglican religion were present in goodly numbers in pre-Revolutionary War days. Festivities on St. Patrick’s Day were being enjoyed as early as 1760 in New York City and the holiday was even celebrated by many officers and men of George Washington’s Colonial Army.
Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, waves of immigrants from Ireland came to this country year after year. The Irish became an important continual presence in America and contributed mightily to the proverbial melting pot.
Irish consciousness of their heritage was especially strong in the years between 1900 and 1920, when souvenir postcards were enjoying a heyday of popularity.
Dozens of publishing companies, most of them in the United States and a few in England, were kept busy manufacturing St. Patrick’s Day greeting-style postcards by the hundreds of thousands.
International Art, located in New York City, had its resident chief artist, Ellen Clapsaddle, design more than 80 different cards for the holiday. International Art and the firms of John Winsch and Fred C. Lounsbury Co. were among the most active American publishers.
However, the leading producer for the American marketplace was Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, England, which was the world’s largest postcard manufacturer and the creator of some of the loveliest and most heartwarming cars ever made.
Tuck was also responsible for at least a dozen different sets of cards for St. Patrick’s Day. All of them were sold exclusively through their New York City branch. Sets had from six to 12 cards each and illustrations consisted of Irish couples, harps, flags, great Irishmen, St. Patrick himself, pretty colleens, castles and lots of shamrocks and shillelaghs.
Nostalgia was the pervading theme on most all of them, though comedy, romance and even Irish-American patriotism crept in at times.
Today, collectors find old St. Patrick’s Day postcards interesting relics of a bygone era. While still reasonably priced, they are no longer available for nickels and dimes. Average prices tend to be in the $5 to $10 range. Some collectors specialize, with interest strong for such categories as artists, a specific publisher, patriotism and novelties.
Another category is transportation and this has become increasingly popular of late. A wide range of postcards show Irish lads and lasses with a wonderful assortment of vehicles. The most common of all are scenes of carts being pulled by animals of all sorts. The list includes donkeys, horses, and even goats.
Long a favorite with collectors, postcards with artwork by Ellen Clapsaddle are both delightful and winsome. Part of her fabulous output for the holiday. were some that fit nicely into the transportation theme. These depicted Irish families off on crazy romps on the highways in automobiles or through the skies in dirigibles.
Bi-planes, the wonder of the age, pop up occasionally on all types of greeting cards and those for St. Patrick’s Day are no exception. One of the most interesting shows a glider-like aircraft approaching New York City. Made by Tuck, it has the caption, “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes.”
When the golden age of picture postcards came to an end in 1914, nearly all of the presses stopped and no more holiday-theme cards were produced until more recent times. Old stocks remained in the nation’s five-and-dime stores for another decade, however, and it is possible to find postcards for this and other holidays with later postmarks. This in no way diminishes their value.
In 1985 the Irish Post Office produced a set of 10 postcards for the holiday. These were sent to a large number of American collectors who were invited to address them to friends and relatives and return them, with proper payment, for mailing, with special holiday postmark, from Dublin.
In many ways, the postcards of St. Patrick’s Day are both a celebration of turn-of-the-century Irish-American traditions and a toast to the United States. They help us to recapture the St. Patrick’s Days of so long ago. Such are some of the reasons they are so collectable today.