Whether it’s a glittering snow globe, a festive popsicle-stick frame, a dazzling sequined bauble for the tree, or a chunky hand-knitted sweater, handmade gifts and ornaments add a warm glow to the holidays.
But handcrafted treasures were trendy long before the rise of DIY YouTube videos and Etsy. In the nineteenth century, traditional arts and crafts were sometimes a reaction against modern industrialization and mass production. Handicrafts were also part of the Victorian culture of domesticity, which revered the purity of the family circle, the domestic arts, and self-improvement. The image of the happy wife and mother was embodied by Queen Victoria and the blissful home that she shared with Prince Albert and their many children. The popular press in both Britain and the United States idolized (and idealized) the couple’s cozy family circle, quickly turning these regal celebrities into cultural influencers. Perhaps the most enduring Anglo-American custom popularized by Victoria and Albert is the Christmas tree, a German tradition from the prince consort’s childhood that was enthusiastically adopted by the public after engraved illustrations of the royals’ decorated evergreen appeared in 1848 in the Illustrated London News, followed in 1850 by an Americanized version featured in Godey’s Lady’s Book.
The celebration of Christmas—which had previously been very subdued—gained momentum during the second half of the nineteenth century, when festivities became increasingly merry and creative. At the same time, advances in the printing industry and in female education led to an abundance of women’s magazines. Godey’s, Peterson’s, Demorest’s, and similar publications responded to a strong demand for gender-specific content and had large circulations. Stories, sheet music, poetry, fashion, essays, and—of course—patterns and instructions for handicrafts filled their illustrated pages.
Let’s take a look at some crafts from holidays past.
In “Aunt Sophie’s Visits,” a short story published in Godey’s in December 1857, a favorite aunt gives advice on decorating the family Christmas tree. “Be lavish in your ornaments upon the tree,” she tells her niece, “but make them yourselves, and you will prize them.” Egg shells, for example, can be painted, or stained with beet juice, indigo, or saffron, then varnished and hung from the tree by a piece of thread, or they can be turned into imitation lemons by dipping them in melted beeswax and attaching laurel leaves to the top. “Nuts, with gilt paper pasted over them, are showy, as also little lace bags of sugar plums.” Strings of “parched” corn create a lively contrast against the evergreen. “And “a variety of funny things may also be made of wire and different colors of sealing wax.”
Aunt Sophie even has ideas about lighting the tree. Because (cheap) tallow candles were smoky, smelly, drippy, and fast-burning, expensive wax candles were required. However, there was a more economical (and safer) way to provide illumination. “All you need do will be to place a small table behind the tree and set upon it a half dozen or less common lamps,” she suggests. “These, with one light on each side of the room, will be brilliant enough for a good effect, and there will be no noticeable expense, and no accident from getting the other contents of the tree on fire.” (Tree fires from lighted candles were obviously a real danger.) As for the family’s homemade gifts, the author makes sure to give credit to “the valuable hints and patterns in the Lady’s Book.”
We can learn more about ornaments in The Household, a domestic encyclopedia published in 1881. “Gilded stars, scarlet and blue stars, can be cut from paper and interspersed with small flags, shields and other devices. Crotchet [sic] purses, bon-bons, preserved fruit, and alum baskets help to make a beautiful and dazzling effect when the tree is lit up.” (To make a crystalline basket, alum mixed with water is poured over a wire basket covered with thread, and crystals form as the solution dries.) Radiantly hued apples and oranges suspended from the branches add color against the greenery. And nothing, the writer tell us, “brightens a Christmas tree” like easy-to-make gilt-paper chains. There are also instructions for making birds’-nest ornaments with eggshells, moss, feathers, and candy eggs, as well as for pine-cone baubles set on “rustic twigs.” To make cornucopias, the covers of old notebooks may be folded and pasted into a horn shape, then covered with a remnant of silk or chintz, and finished with some trimming along the top and a crocheted cord for hanging.
Nature’s bounty—collected on a walk in the woods, garden, or fields—makes the Christmas tree even more beautiful. The Household advises that “crystallized moss hanging from the branches, acorns, sweet gum balls and cotton balls are all very effective among the green.” And “hoop-skirt springs make the best foundations for [evergreen] wreaths and crowns,” we are told. (Although cage crinolines had been out of fashion for a while, the metal rings referred to here could have been repurposed from old hoops. On the other hand, the bustle—which was in vogue in the 1870s and ‘80s—was also made with cloth-covered steel wires, which were sometimes used for crafts.)
Gifts were often hung like ornaments on the Christmas tree. But The Household suggests “putting all the bulky and heavy presents in baskets at the base of the tree, instead of loading down the tree with their weight and making the branches unsightly.” In any case, who could resist the evergreen “in the parlor, loaded with brilliant candles, bonbons, and toys,” as Demorest’s Family Magazine put it in December 1890.
Crafty revelers had many options when it came to homemade gifts. For example, Demorest’s tells Yuletide readers in 1890 how to make presents “for every member of the family, from grandpa to baby.” A “beautiful watch-case made of moss-green silk, lined with rose-colored satin,” trimmed with silver cord, and embroidered might be just the thing in the days when every gentleman had a fine pocket watch. Or maybe a hair receiver made of stiff paper painted in a Japanese design and adorned with red silk pompoms would make the perfect gift for a friend? (Women saved hair that fell out during brushing to use as padding for voluminous hairstyles or to provide a filler for handmade items such as small pincushions.)
Even Victorian kids joined the do-it-yourself craze. In December 1875, St. Nicholas, the well-known magazine for children edited by Mary Mapes Dodge (the author of Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates), published an article “for Girls, Little and Big (with a few Useful Hints for Boys),” which gives instructions for one hundred Christmas presents to make at home. “’What shall I make for Christmas? I want a present for mamma, and one for father, and something for Jack and for Ethel, something pretty, but not too hard for me to make,” a child might ask. The easiest projects—suitable for six- or seven-year-old crafters—include a scent case for handkerchiefs; bright scarlet or blue knitted garters; a pen-wiper for Papa’s library table made from red kid-leather baby shoes; and a shaving-paper case “for papas and grown-up brothers” (shaving papers were used to wipe lather from a razor). Girls from ten to fourteen “who are expert with their needles” could choose to make bags of white dimity for combs and brushes; crocheted hanging baskets lined with glass for mosses, ferns, and flowers; or a pansy pincushion. Embroidered or beaded spectacle cases “are nice presents to make for grandpapas and grandmammas.” Girls over the age of fourteen are given even more elaborate present ideas, such as ornamental picture frames and easels made from Norway spruce. Boys with “a fair amount of good taste and ingenuity can make very nice presents out of smoothed cocoa-nut shells,” such as flower pots, water pails, and pretty receptacles for calling cards.
Times have changed, and we no longer need pen wipers or pocketwatch cases, but a special handmade ornament or gift will never go out of style.
Margaret Adams Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian