Upstate artist gained fame for postcards, but met misfortune (with photo gallery)
A young blond girl, dressed in a witch’s red hat and cloak, sits on top of a large, grinning jack-o’-lantern. She has a black cat for company and offers people who look into her eyes a cute, coy smile.
It’s a drawing on a postcard, and at the bottom there’s a poem:
“On Hallowe’en, Oh, mercy me,
The awfullest things that one can see —
Ghosts, and goblins, and witches too,
And other things to frighten you.”
In another postcard, there’s another scene from the October night of black and gold: A small boy in farm hat and overalls stacks carved pumpkins on a shelf as a spotted white dog admires the funny faces.
Former Herkimer County resident Ellen Clapsaddle knew how to describe children and holidays. A well-regarded artist active during the early 1900s, she illustrated holiday postcards and greeting cards that are now prized by collectors. She wrote her own poetry and was a successful businesswoman.
But there is a sad side to the story of Ellen Clapsaddle, who was born in 1865 in South Columbia, Herkimer County, a little north of Richfield Springs and famous in her time for illustrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
According to James Parker of Ilion, one of Clapsaddle’s descendants, Ellen created more than 4,000 images of children in holiday moods and published millions of postcards.
“She is credited with putting the first smile and red cheeks on old Kris Kringle and turning him into the Santa Claus we know today,” Parker said. “She also designed the first snow babies in the late 1800s.”
Postcards remain popular in vacation and tourist spots. During the early 1900s, Parker said, their popularity was immense. Sending cards was almost a national craze.
“That was an era when the postcard business was one of the biggest businesses in the printing world,” Parker said. “If you got on your horse and buggy and went 10 miles to the next town, the first thing you’d do is go to a general store and buy a postcard and send it back to your friends and relatives to let them know you’d traveled.”
It’s ironic that a woman who depicted happy times — Clapsaddle also illustrated Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day and other party days on the calendar — would experience a reversal of fortune. Parker, a cousin, tells her story.
Ellen’s first lessons were learned in a one-room school in Columbia.
“There was no high school,” Parker said. “If you finished the one-room school, your parents would send you to board at a near town that had an academy.”
That happened in Ellen’s family. She was an only child and studied at the Richfield Springs Seminary, graduating in 1882. Her father later passed away, and she and her mother moved to Richfield Springs.
Ellen’s artwork made an impression on principals from Horrocks-Ibbotson, a Utica-based company that manufactured fishing reels. She did illustrations for the company’s catalog, Parker said, and the company decided to send the young artist to the well-regarded Cooper Institute in New York City.
After graduation, she returned to Richfield Springs and taught art. She made new fans when she sent two illustrations to International Art in New York City, which became best sellers for the firm.
Her career really picked up when she began an association with the Wolf brothers, whose company was an outlet for International Art. She eventually became art director and was a partner at the Wolf Company shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
Parker said four-color printing was rare during the early 1900s. If the process was done, it was in Germany. The Wolfs and Clapsaddle purchased a business overseas.
Tragedy of war
“In that plant, they printed three and a half million postcards,” Parker said. “Then World War I occurred. The Wolf brothers were in New York and Ellen was managing the plant [in Germany]. They firebombed it during World War I and she lost everything, including all 4,000 of her original paintings. And no one heard from her from 1916 until 1919, when the war was over.”
One of the Wolfs — the company later would go out of business because of the war losses — traveled to Germany to search for Clapsaddle. The then middle-aged woman eventually was found wandering the streets, hungry and sick. She had experienced a mental breakdown.
Wolf and Clapsaddle returned to the United States. Ellen, who had no close relatives, began a modest living in New York City. She became obscure.
But her postcards were still out there. They had been mailed to people all over the world.
Michael Shor, who owns Wolf Creek Paper Antiques in Madison, N.J., and was in town last weekend for the Albany Antiquarian Book Fair, has her cards in stock. He said folks began collecting them during the 1940s.
“All you have to do is look at the cards from Ellen Clapsaddle and you would recognize that Ellen Clapsaddle’s art is — in the words that are often used to describe music and its melody — easily accessible,” Shor said.
“You don’t have to appreciate anything about art to look at Ellen Clapsaddle’s postcards and say those are very nice. She had a wonderful way of portraying children in their innocence. Everything is beautiful and clean and crisp, the lines are very well drawn. You can recognize an Ellen Clapsaddle postcard from 10 paces away, it stands out from all the rest.”
Shor will sell some Clapsaddle cards for under $10. Some of the Halloween creations are worth $1,000 or more.
“Halloween is the most desirable holiday of all the holiday greeting cards, not just Ellen’s, just Halloween,” he said. “Halloween is the rarest of greeting cards, more sought after than Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving.”
One reason — fewer Halloween cards were sent. Another reason — Halloween is the flip side of Easter and Christmas angels, Shor said. “This is black cats and witches and skulls and graveyards, everything mean and nasty,” he said.
Clapsaddle cards and other documents from the past are still being found in attics, old books and trunks. “They come out of people’s estates,” Shor said. “That’s where you find them.”
Billy Parrott, managing librarian for the art and picture collections at the Mid-Manhattan Library in New York City, is also a Clapsaddle fan. The library has examples of her work in its collection.
“She had this knack for distilling the essence of a particular theme, a holiday, and distilling it into this perfect gem-like memorable image that was instantly recognizable,” Parrott said.
She was also innovative. Evelyn Edwards of Clinton in Oneida County, who collects Clapsaddle and has given lectures on the artist’s career, said “mechanical” versions of Ellen’s Halloween cards are hard to find.
“She has four especially,” Edwards said. “There’s an arm over the child’s face that’s holding a pumpkin and covers the face of the child.”
The pumpkin moves and reveals the face. “Those are very pricey,” Edwards said.
People paid for them. Parker said that at one time, Clapsaddle was very wealthy.
“In a sense, it’s an inspiring story for young girls who come from a humble background,” Parker said. “She was a millionaire at 32 and lost everything.”
And by drawing and painting children of 100 years ago, Parker said, Clapsaddle also contributed to history. He said children’s fashions and social activities are represented on the cards, along with the greetings.
In 1932, Ellen was admitted to the Peabody Home, a residence for the indigent. She died on Jan. 7, 1934, one day short of her 69th birthday.
Parker said one of her last wishes — communicated through a letter to family members — was to come home and be with her parents.
“They did that,” Parker said. “They brought her back and she’s buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Richfield Springs.”