The halls, they are decked, the silver bells, they are ringing, and throughout the land a festive Christmas spirit is finally descending upon us. It’s also the electric company’s favorite time of year, I would guess, and it’s always entertaining walking or driving around and seeing how extravagantly some homeowners festoon their homes—tastefully, garishly, and everything in between—with all manner of lights, inflatables, and giant electric snow globes. I’ve seen entire houses wrapped like presents—that’s gotta take a lot of rolls of wrapping paper.
There are even large illuminated Christmas dioramas. Indeed, the Nativity scene is perhaps the most popular diorama.
We use the word “diorama” today to refer to a three-dimensional scale model of some kind of scene. However, when it was invented in 1822—and the word “diorama” was coined—it actually meant something quite a bit different. The original “diorama” was a painted semi-transparent fabric that cleverly used lighting effects to depict a roughly animated but strangely realistic scene. Day turned to night, trains would crash, or an earthquake would decimate a town. The word derives from the Greek di- (“through”) and orama “that which is seen, a sight”). (The modern sense of a diorama as a small-scale replica of a scene wasn’t conceived until 1902.)
The diorama was co-invented by French painter Charles Marie Bouton and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, artist and proto-photographer, inventor of the daguerreotype. They first exhibited their diorama in London on September 29, 1823. It was actually a large, theatrical experience, with as many as 350 theatergoers standing in front of the large painting. Over the course of 10 to 15 minutes, they would watch the image change. Then, the viewing area would rotate 180 degrees and they would watch a second diorama. (Hey, it was the 1820s, but it sounds better than some movies I’ve seen.) These were a success in both Paris and London and soon spawned a number of imitators, as these things tend to do.
Sadly, only one example of Daguerre’s dioramas has survived. Not intended for theatrical exhibition, but created for Paris’ Church of St. Gervaise and St. Protais, it measured 18 feet 4 inches high by 20 feet 7 inches wide. The painting was of a Gothic cathedral choir and natural light streaming in through an opening near the top of the diorama made the image appear to be lit by flickering candles. (Perhaps this is the first example of dynamic signage.) It reportedly took Daguerre six months to create.
Daguerre is of course most famous for the invention of the daguerreotype, which worked basically like this. A sheet of silver-coated copper was exposed to iodine vapors, which resulted in a light-sensitive layer of silver iodide. It was then exposed in a camera for a few seconds or longer depending on the lighting. Exposure to mercury vapor developed the image, and a salt solution fixed the image, preventing further exposure. It was then rinsed, then mounted behind glass. The distinguishing characteristic of a daguerreotype was that the image had the illusion of floating above the surface of the metal sheet, imparting an almost 3D effect.
The success of the daguerreotype kicked off beaucoup de research into new photographic materials. One such researcher was British inventor Frederick Scott Archer. He started as an apprentice silversmith, then turned to sculpture. He would use Henry Fox Talbot’s somewhat primitive calotype photography (paper coated with silver iodide) to take pictures of his sculptures, but he was frustrated at the calotype’s inability to capture fine detail or decent contrast (it also took forever to expose). What he wanted was the image quality of the daguerreotype coupled with the ability to make paper copies, which was where the calotype had the advantage. So in 1848, Archer invented his own process, which he called collodion photography, aka the “wet plate collodion photographic process.” It wasn’t a very user-friendly process:
The collodion available at that time was made from gun cotton, which is cotton soaked in nitric and sulphuric acid and then dried. The gun cotton was then dissolved in a mixture of alcohol and ether to which potassium iodide was added.
The resulting mixture then had to be applied to a glass plate with great care before immersion in a silver nitrate bath resulting in a light-sensitive layer of silver iodide. This plate could then be placed in the camera and exposed. All of this has to be done while the plate was wet and some steps required darkness, so photographers would need a dark tent or in many cases a wagon on hand (Coomes, 2010).
Still, this was quite the breakthrough, and would only be displaced by gelatin dry plates. Poor Archer, though; he could have made millions. Instead of patenting the process, as he was advised, he published the details of it in The Chemist calling it his “gift to the world.” Alas, he died less than 10 years later at the age of 44 in poverty. Although Archer’s process was eventually superseded, it survives today among a subset of modern fine-art photographers who call themselves the Collodion Collective. They also, among other things, help keep alive the memory and works of Archer.
One early user of Archer’s process was American painter William Henry Jackson. Jackson was a Civil War veteran and later a photographer who became known for his pictures of the Old West. (He was also the great-nephew of Samuel Wilson, a Troy, N.Y. meatpacker who is believed—though not by everyone—to have been the origin of “Uncle Sam,” the anthropomorphic representation of the United States. Don’t ever tell anyone in Troy that you disagree with this.)
Jackson got a lot of photographic work. Union Pacific hired him to take photos along rail routes for the company’s marketing materials, and he later was invited to join various U.S. Geological Surveys of the Rockies and the areas around what would become Yellowstone National Park. He used Archer’s collodion process, which was not an easy thing to do in the wild west of the 1870s, since it required schlepping a portable darkroom around.
Jackson is also believed to be the “inventor” of the postcard, at least in the U.S. (Digital Nirvana readers may recall that a wacky Brit sent the first postcard 20 years earlier...to himself.) During the Civil War, Jackson would paint battlefield scenes on cards, add some written comments, and then send them to his family back home.
Around the same time, in 1861, a Philadelphia printer named John Charlton launched the first “real” U.S. postcard. Not what we think of today as a postcard (there was no image on it), Charlton’s postcards featured a blank side where the address would go, while the reverse had a decorative border around where the message would be written. That’s it. (Yes, it seems odd that this is something that needed to be invented, kind of like the notion that it took two people to write the song “Happy Birthday to You.” We continue.)
Be that as it may, Charlton copyrighted and patented the idea, then later transferred the rights to his friend and fellow printer Hyman Lipman, who added “Lipman’s Postal Card. Patent Applied For” on one side of the card. Their postcard business lasted until 1873, when the USPS began selling its own postcards and private postcards were disallowed. This was reversed in 1898 when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act.
Be they official USPS cards or private, postcard use exploded, becoming, as I commented in the past, kind of the text messages of their time. The first two decades of the 20th century are referred to by postcard aficionados as “The Golden Age of Postcards,” with billions of them sent each year. This was facilitated by two brand new services, or two versions of the same service: home delivery of mail and Rural Free Delivery.
At the same time, making postcards was pretty easy; in 1902, Kodak started selling paper for postcard printing, and a year later launched the 3A Folding Pocket Kodak Camera, an easy-to-use device that exposed postcard-size negatives that could then be printed directly onto the postcard paper.
The postcard craze got the attention of a Nebraska merchant named Joyce (“J.C.”) Hall. Hall’s family owned a wholesale goods store in Norfolk, Neb., and, in 1906, inspired by the postcard craze, Hall moved to Kansas City to open a shop to sell wholesale postcards, as well as other stationery items. It was a success, but Hall decided to take the idea one step further: greeting cards, which he felt would be a bigger deal someday than postcards. So by 1915, Hall Brothers—as the company was called—was selling predominantly Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards.
Then, in 1922, one of the Hall brothers, Rollie, invented something that is very much a part of the holiday season.
At that time, gifts—be they Christmas or otherwise—were wrapped in little more than tissue paper, and Hall Brothers sold red, green, and white tissue paper. In 1917, however, they underestimated demand, and sold out their inventory. Scrambling, Rollie found some high-end French paper used to line envelopes. He made a little display in the shop for it, and priced it at—oh, say, 10 cents—just to see what would happen. To everyone’s surprise, it sold out. They tried again the next year to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke. Nope; that batch sold like mad, as well.
So, for Christmas 1919, they decided to print their own “wrapping paper.” It was a hit. And to this day, gift wrapping is big business, especially for the descendants of the company that invented it which, in 1928, changed its name from Hall Brothers to what we know it as today—Hallmark.
Here’s hoping you receive many things wrapped in Rollie Hall’s invention. On behalf of everyone at WhatTheyThink, I wish you a Merry Christmas.
Melissa Abraham, “Getty Foundation Grant Helps Restore Daguerre’s Final Illusion,” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty, September 13, 2013, http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/getty-foundation-grant-helps-restore-daguerres-final-illusion/.
British Journal of Photography, 22 (773): 102–104, February 26, 1875.
Phil Coomes, “Remembering Frederick Scott Archer,” BBC, April 27, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/photoblog/2010/04/remembering_frederick_scott_archer.html.
Bob Doran, “The Golden Age of Postcards,” North Coast Journal, February 17, 2011, http://www.northcoastjournal.com/humboldt/the-golden-age-of-postcards/Content?oid=2131798.
“Diorama,” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=diorama.
Dorothy W. Patterson and Janet M. DeVries, Delray Beach (Postcard History: Florida). Charleston, S.C., Arcadia Publishing, 2008, p. 10.
Frank Romano and Richard Romano, The GATF Encyclopedia of Graphic Communication, Pittsburgh, Pa.,: GATF Press, 1997.
Ethan Trex, “The Accidental Birth of Wrapping Paper,” Mental Floss, December 2, 2013, http://mentalfloss.com/article/31838/accidental-birth-wrapping-paper.
“Stamped Cards and Postcards,” United States Postal Service, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/stamped-cards-and-postcards.pdf.
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