Fenimore Museum Dips Into Its Collection
For Cards, Toys, Other ‘Holiday Goodies’
When people around here think of Christmas, they think of…monkeys?
At least they used to.
“In the 19th century, they were still developing Christmas imagery,” said James Matson, Fenimore Art Museum assistant curator. “Images of animals had a more exotic appeal, and animals like monkeys were associated with the circus, with fun.”
Two such playful monkeys adorn one of the many Christmas cards at The Fenimore’s “Decking the Halls” exhibit, open through Dec. 31.
“It’s something delightful for the holidays,” said Chief Curator Chris Rossi. “It’s been fun to go through the archives to find these unseen holiday goodies.”
The exhibit features ornaments, paintings, toys and illustrations celebrating Christmas not just across the country, but right here in Cooperstown.
Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote about local Christmases in her “Rural Hours,” said Chief Curator Chris Rossi. “She writes about the greenery and gifts, and we thought it would be fun to include her voice in the exhibition.”
She wrote, “Christmas must always be a happy, cheerful day. The fresh and fragrant greens, the friendly gifts and words of goodwill, the ‘Merry Christmas’ smiles on most faces one meets, give a warm glow to the day.”
“Things haven’t changed much,” said Rossi.
Among the Christmas cards in the exhibit is a 1931 example sent out by Edward Severin Clark, Jane Clark’s great uncle, as well as a “Christmas in Cooperstown” contributed by the Afton Historical Society.
“They found it in their collections and were kind enough to bring it our way,” said Rossi. “The timing was right.”
You’ll also see an image of Thomas Nast’s original Santa Claus, in the Christmas 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly. “Nast is credited with the definitive ideal of how Santa looks,” said Rossi.
Early depictions, Nast’s and others, show him alone making the toys, she said, adding, “We know Santa has elves, but we don’t see them in any of the works in this exhibit.”
Elves, like the famous red velvet suit, came more into prominence in the 20th century.
The card case isn’t the only place a playful monkey is featured. A hearth filled with toys includes one on a pull-string. “The monkey is the hidden theme,” Rossi jokes. “Making the tableaux was the most fun, getting to pick out a mantelpiece and all these toys.”
There’s a teddy bear, of course, and building blocks, as well as an elaborate dollhouse. “Dollhouses were fun to play with, because a little girl could learn about housekeeping and furnishing a home.”
Christmas trees didn’t come into fashion in America until Queen Victoria put one up.
Dried berries made for a festive garland and cotton stood in for snow, with paper cones that could be filled with sweets for the children.
But without electricity, the glow of the tree had to be lit with thin white candles. “You would only light them for a few minutes,” said Rossi. “Otherwise, your whole tree would go up in flames.”
In addition to homemade ornaments, a number of glass ornaments from the late 19th century were brought out of The Fenimore’s collection, as well as silver tinsel trim. “With the candles, it must have looked very bright,” said Rossi.
This year, with no Candlelight Evening – The Farmers’ museums’ usual seasonal centerpiece – “Decking The Halls” is one of the alternatives developed for the Christmas of COVID.
At The Farmers’, Holiday Lantern Tours are being offered, this coming weekend and Dec. 18-19.
“I don’t want to be too modest, but The Fenimore and Farmers’ Museum makes a considerable contribution to how Christmas is celebrated in Cooperstown,” said Matson.