Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The 15 years or so after the turn of the 20th century were known as The Golden Age of Postcards. Costing just a penny to mail (later 2 cents), "penny postcards" were used to send a quick greeting or celebrate festive occasions and holidays. Over the years, several names emerged as sought-after postcard artists. One was John Winsch, whose forte was beautiful women, including Native Americans. Another was Frances Brundage, who also specialized in beautiful women, and pretty little children.

Among the most prized postcards of all were signed Ellen H. Clapsaddle, the most prolific postcard artist of all time. She was  undeniably a master in portraying the charm and innocence of children. She created hundreds of images for all the holidays - New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. In my opinion, her Halloween postcards number among her best work.

Those of you who have been reading my blog the past three autumns know about my passion for vintage Halloween cards, and Ellen Clapsaddle is my very favorite of the postcard artists who captured the feel of long-ago Halloween. Spooky as they were, grinning jack o'lanterns, devilish imps and ghosts were the scariest creatures in Halloween postcards. There were no monsters, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, or the slashers of today's Halloween. It was a time when reading, coupled with a good imagination, provided the biggest thrills of all.

The following information on the life of Ellen Clapsaddle was taken from "The Life of Ellen Clapsaddle" by Baby Janet on

"Born on January 8th, 1863, in the town of South Columbia, New York, Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle was destined to become the most prolific postcard and greeting card artist of her time. A shy and delicate child who loved to draw, she displayed artistic ability from an early age. She was encouraged in her artistic endeavors by her parents and teachers.

"After graduation from the Richfield Springs Seminary in nearby Richfield Springs, New York in 1882, she rounded out her art education with a couple of years training at the Cooper Institute in New York City. She then returned home to South Columbia and, after placing an ad in a local paper, began offering painting lessons in her home.

"Ellen's father, Dennis L.Clapsaddle, died on January 5th in 1891. Ellen and her mother then moved in with an aunt in Richfield Springs. Ellen spent her next fourteen years giving art lessons, doing illustrations, landscapes, portraits, and some freelance work through the mail.

"A phrase taken from a poem she once wrote her mother, “My heart is a child”, typifies not only her sensitive and artistic nature but also the innocence and joy of life so vividly expressed in her artistic accomplishments. A sense of childlike happiness emanates from both the depths of her personality and its expression in her artistry.

"After spending several years in Germany at the expense of International Art Company, Ellen returned to New York around 1906 and was hired by the Wolf Company, a subsidiary of International Art Company. She soon became their sole artist and designer. Her mother, Harriet (Beckwith) Clapsaddle had died on March 2nd 1905, sadly while Ellen was in Europe.

"During her time with Wolf, her success reached such a peak that there seemed to be no limit to the growth potential for either the company or the postcard industry. Ellen invested heavily in German postcard firms on the advice of the Wolf brothers, who did likewise. The company was doing so well they sent her to Germany to work with their engravers.

"In August, 1914, Ellen was in Germany at the outbreak of World War I. Factories were destroyed, records burned, and messages never received or answered. Almost all of her original art and prints were destroyed during the Great War. It wasn't long before she became a displaced person, penniless and alone in a foreign land.

"Back in the States, the Wolf brothers had been cut off from supplies coming from Germany. Most firms, Wolf Brothers among them, went out of business or were severely financially handicapped as a result of the war. At the end of the war, one of the brothers borrowed money and went to Europe in search of Ellen, who was finally found some six months later wandering the streets. Hungry and sick, she barely recognized Mr. Wolf when he approached her. She was 55 years old.

"Wolf brought her back to New York where he could take care of her. She no longer had the ability to earn a living, and her health declined rapidly. Mr. Wolf himself died desolate and poor a few years after bringing Ellen back. She was left alone and mentally incapacitated.
Admitted to the Peabody Home in New York City in January 1932, Ellen had lost all capacity to reason. She passed away some two years later, on January 7, 1934, one day short of her 69th birthday. Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle died penniless and alone. She had never married, and had no sisters or brothers.

"It wasn't until after World War II that her body was reinterred, and she found her final resting place next to her parents in Lakeview Cemetery, in Richfield Springs. Her marker simply reads, "ELLEN."

"Ellen Clapsaddle’s artistry often evokes the innocence and purity of childhood. The artistry of her postcards brings back an era much cherished in retrospect for its civility and gentility. Her life is a story of both success and tragedy – success in the beauty, innocence and expansiveness of her artistry, and tragedy in the destructiveness of war towards all that we hold civilized and dear.

"Her story is one all too common amongst artists of all kinds: the rosy, fresh-faced innocence of her girls and young women, which has made her celebrated to this day as the greatest of the pre-war postcard artists, was a painfully ironic contrast to the tragedy of her later years. But how wonderful her work is! There is no doubt that were she alive today she would want us to accept her early images of pretty, childlike joy in the spirit in which they were painted."


World War I brought an end to the Golden Age of Postcards, although American firms continued printing excellent Halloween postcards well into the 1920s. But the end of the Golden Age of Postcards - and America's belated entry into WWI -  I think, coincide with the end of the Golden Age of Innocence in America.


mxtodis123 said...

I love these. Thanks for posting them. I do believe I was born in the wrong time.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Atouching story - thanks for the history lesson. I always learn so much here.

Patty said...

I remember how much you love the vintage postcards. These are really sweet. Thanks for posting them and telling us the history, it was really interesting.

Autumn Leaves said...

Another great blog, Julie! What a very sad story Ellen lived. I think I've heard of her and have surely seen some of her postcards, especially when I go antiquing. Her work is so lovely, but my favorites are the two with the little boy and his hair standing on end!

Lynda said...

I've seen her name on so many post cards but never knew her story ... thanks so much for sharing it, Julie, and your beautiful post cards!

Jen said...

What a tragic story. The things her poor heart must have seen during the war...I can't imagine.
thanks for the post.

Shopgirl said...

You teach me.I never gave a story to the person who painted these wonderful cards. Like so many things, I just admired them and went on my way. Although her story is sad, I can't help but think she might know the joy she gave, she must have found joy in doing them.
Big Hugs, mary
Grey's will be on in a little while.

Lila Rostenberg said...

Thank-you for a moving post about Halloween and an artist!
Those children are so charming!

Chris said...

I love the postcards and the story is really sad. Just shows how horrible war is.

gma said...

Bittersweet story about Ellen.
Times were different then, better in some ways and worse in some ways. Absolutely precious art.

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

I really like all these postcards - less creepy and more cute..Love them! Thanks for sharing :-)

Anonymous said...

re your article on line about artist Ellen Clapsaddle by "Baby Janet" Much is simply not true Please visit
Collectors/807318146043125 to see documentation that Ellen was not a lost, wandering, mentally ill displaced person during WW I in Germany...she arrived home safely and continued working, according to documents I have found.