Saturday, 21 December 2013

Sepia Saturday 208: An early call for Father Christmas


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett, Marilyn Brindley and Kat Mortensen

Among the same set of lantern slides which I have featured previously in two previous Sepia Saturday posts (A Return Trip to Dovedale and Ready with the Bulls-Eye) is this pair of group images. I estimated the other photographs in the collection to have been taken c.1900 to 1910, and identified at least one, and possibly two, of them as having been taken in Derbyshire.



The first is a semi-formal group portrait of 17 women who appear to be dressed as maids or house servants. However something about the uniformity of their mob caps suggests to me that they may be dressed for some kind of play, pantomime or variety performance, rather than being employees in a very grand house. I guess that the house would have to be a lot bigger than Downton Abbey to have that number of youngish female servants in residence.



Whether these 34 children and their teacher (top right) have just attended a pantomime performance or a party is not clear, but the presence of a visitor from the North Pole (top left) places the event very firmly in December. The development of Santa's image as a plump, jovial, white-haired and bearded elderly man dressed in red with white fur trim largely happened in North America in the late 1800s (with the not inconsiderable help of caricaturist Thomas Nast), and then underwent a reverse migration back to Europe. Given that this image was probably taken in the United Kingdom in the first decade of the twentieth century, I think it must be a very early representation of Father Christmas. He wears a mob cap, rather than the now standard long, floppy pointed cap, but is otherwise much as we see him today.


"Merry Old Santa Claus," by Thomas Nast
from Harper's Weekly, 1 Jan 1881

That's all I have for Saturday Sepians this week. Have a great Christmas holiday and we'll see you again in the New Year. In the interim, if you're in need of some light entertainment, check out the other sepian contributions.

32 comments:

  1. Great pictures and information. Love the Thomas Nash.

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    1. Lots to be discovered about Thomas Nast - quite an illustrator!

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  2. That was very accommodating of Father Christmas to pose with the children - especially as he had quite a heavy schedule.

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    1. I think his mind is already on the next stop in his schedule - your house, perhaps, Little Nell?

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  3. I think the young lady in the children's picture in the second row, third from left, in a light-colored dress has that certain smug smile on her face that says she's sitting exactly where she wanted to be - directly below the fine-looking fellow she has a crush on. Hard to tell what he might think about the situation, however? They didn't have the expression back then, but it appears he might be thinking "Whatever." Oh well. :))) Merry Christmas!

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    1. I knew I could count on you for a story from this photo, Gail. He remained taciturn and unmoved, at least on the surface, but underneath all that his mind was alive with the possibilities ;-) Merry Christmas to you too.

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    2. Oh, well done! Happy New Year! :->

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  4. The Nast is great, especially with all the stuff hanging all over him...Merry Christmas to you!

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    1. Very similar to a Christmas image that I used in an article about toys recently (see my previous post on Photo-Sleuth)

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  5. I agree the first photo looks like a play!

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  6. It seems like Santa's mob cap must be related in some way to the caps of the women.

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    1. That's what I thought, but several readers think it's actually a traditional Santa's cap.

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  7. Both exceptional photos, Brett. I think the women's shawls seem impracticable for a servant's attire, though there is definitely a uniformity about them. One also has a rose in her lapel which seems un-servantlike. Could they be matrons from an institution, either a workhouse, school, or hospital?

    The children are wonderful character studies and I agree with Gail's observation. One girl, white dress bottom right, wears spectacles too, which seems unusual for this period. However, I'm not convinced that Father Christmas doesn't wear a fur trimmed cap. It looks too fuzzy for a mob cap. And if he went to the effort to find a false beard and suitable cape/cloak with fur (rabbit? cat?), why not add the proper red/white cap too?

    My best wishes to you for a joyful holiday.

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    1. I think you're right about Santa's cap - on closer examination, it does look to be hair and a fur-trimmed cap of some kind.

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  8. Its Interesting that they tucked Santa in at the back rather than center-stage,as he would have been today.
    Have A Great Christmas Brett.

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    1. I hadn't thought much about Santa's placement - perhaps there was a second, now lost, image in which he was the star attraction.

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  9. Oh thanks to your post, now I know the original source of that Santa; I have an old framed copy, just a print from the 1950's and have meant to research it. Merry Christmas. I must be the only person in the world who has never watched Donton Abbey.

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    1. I must confess that although I watched most of the first series, I'm not much of a fan of the Downton Abbey sagas either.

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  10. I think Santa is wearing a fur trimmed cap with the red part down behind. The stuff that looks like the ruffle on a mop cap is actually his hair! Happy Christmas! Patricia, I've never watched Downtown Abbey either.

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    1. You and Mike are probably quite right. You'll have to form an association of the Downton Abbey-uninitiated.

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  11. I think I used the Nast picture in my post last year. That first group of girls reminded me that my mother spent several years in service, probably in the 1920s. I never found out where.

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    1. The Nast image is very familiar to me too, although I hadn't investigated its origins in much detail before.

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  12. Those caps are strange looking - quite impractical I imagine.
    I too have never watched Downton Abbey.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family

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    1. Thank you Jackie, and the same to you and yours.

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  13. I agree with Mike and Kristin about Santa's cap. Have a great holiday season, Brett. It's been fun reading your posts. I'm looking forward to another year with you. Nancy says so, too.
    Barbara

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  14. Merry Christmas. Thanks for sharing the pictures. It would be interesting to learn more about the seventeen young women. I agree the caps don't look practical.

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    1. Yes, Anne, although I think it's unlikely we will ever learn much about them.

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  15. Merry Christmas Brett! Lots of food for the imagination in these photos, for sure. Santa has shifty eyes, I think. Maybe I'm just mean today. See you in 2014~

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    1. Thanks Wendy - Merry Christmas to you and yours as well. I thought that about Santa too, but you know how pressing the shutter at the wrong moment can catch the oddest expressions on people's faces.

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  16. I was going to suggest an hotel perhaps for those maids, but their uniforms show slight differences, unless their specific function defined such costumes. Nice selection!! St-Nicholas would be pleased!!!

    My very best wishes for the new year,
    to you and your loved ones!!
    :)~
    HUGZ

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