Celebrate President’s Day in style with George Washington and vintage postcards

Does anyone really celebrate Washington’s birthday any more?


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"Washington Taking Command of his Army" is one of six in Tuck's Washington's Birthday series, No. 156. The flag border makes it an especially vibrant card.

Does anyone celebrate President’s Day? There’s something so bland about the made-up holiday that it must pass most people without a flicker of interest.

A century ago, George Washington’s birthday was a red-letter date. He was born in Virginia on Feb. 22, 1732, and grew up pursuing his interests in western expansion and the military. He gained experience in the British army, participating in early skirmishes in what became the French and Indian War. In 1759, he settled down with his wife, Martha, to manage his lands at Mount Vernon and serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1775, he managed to get himself appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The rest is familiar history.

An impressive number of postcards were made and sold to celebrate his life and his birthday — so many that they’re still fairly easy to find. At a time when his portrait hung in most of the schoolrooms in the country, it’s not surprising that postcard publishers promoted and sold a great many Washington cards, possibly more than for the Fourth of July and Memorial Day combined, if their availability today is any indication.

James Lowe’s Standard Postcard Catalog (2nd ed. 1982) lists 42 different sets and series of Washington postcards, many of them published by Rafael Tuck and Sons. Although there’s a certain irony that a British firm was the leading publisher of Washington postcards, it’s not surprising. Tuck was the foremost international postcard publisher throughout the “Golden Age.” Today Tuck’s cards from the early 1900s are still among the most valuable and sought-after postcards.

The postmarks on Washington cards show that they were used to commemorate his birthday, not just for collectors of the day to tuck away in their albums.  Most were mailed on the 20th or 21st of February, recalling a time when mail moved fast enough to arrive on the 22nd.

Tuck’s postcards are especially nice to collect because they were issued in numbered sets, something collectors appreciate when trying to find complete runs. Those that show Washington in scenes from history are eye-catching, but there is one caution when buying them sight unseen. They weren’t always printed on the strongest card stock, so it’s important that they are in excellent condition.

Washington cards were made by a who’s who of important early publishers, including International Art, E. Nash and Illustrated Post Card. There aren’t a great many signed artists, the exceptions being Ellen H. Clapsaddle and R. Veenfleit. George Washington postcards are especially noteworthy for their patriotic themes and the honor they pay to our first president.

To quote Gen. Henry Lee of Virgian, whose quote is on one card, Washington was: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

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More Images:

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A teacher sent this card by an unidentified publisher to a boy who missed class. She mentions treating with chocolates, maybe a way of celebrating the president's birthday in school.
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Cherry motifs were popular a century ago, although the story of cutting down the cherry tree has been debunked. This card by an unidentified publisher wasn't listed in Lowe's catalog, suggesting that there are more early cards to be discovered.
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Bright red cherries make this card by R. Veenfliet especially colorful. The signature is easy to read, but the tiny trademark in the lower left corner proved impossible to make out, even with a magnifying glass. It was printed in Germany, as were most postcards of the 1910 era
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"Washington's Inauguration" was mailed in 1912. A tiny trademark in the lower left corner indicates it was published by Sander.

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