Christmas Postcards Provide Clues to Family History

Christmas Postcards Provide Clues to Family History

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By Beverly C. Tyler

Today it is the custom to send letters or attractive cards to relatives and friends at Christmas. This was not always the case as cards, especially colored cards, were a 19th-century innovation. Colorful Christmas cards were becoming popular in the United States by the 1870s, and by the 1880s they were being printed in the millions and were no longer being hand-colored. Christmas cards during the late 1800s came in all shapes and sizes and were made with silk, satin, brocade and plush, as well as with lace and embroidery surrounding the printed card. These cards were just as varied as those we have today and included religious themes, landscapes from every season, animals, the traditional Father Christmas, children and humor. The colorful cards usually included some verse in addition to the greeting.

This explosion in the availability of commercial cards, along with a change in postal regulations that permitted the penny postcard, started a quickly growing trend to send brief messages to friends and relatives, especially during the Christmas and holiday season.

Combing through old postcards, especially the large number sent over the Christmas holidays, has opened for my wife, Barbara, and me a window into our families’ histories. Our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles sent and received cards from both local and distant friends and relatives. My wife’s aunt Muriel West was no exception. As a young girl Muriel, born in 1901, received Christmas cards and kept them in a postcard album. Many of the cards are postmarked between 1907 and 1914 when the postcard craze was still at its height. Looking at the cards we could see the postmarks included both the date it was sent and where the card was mailed. In some cases the postcard was postmarked at both the departure and arrival post offices, giving us an appreciation of the rapid speed of early 20th-century mail.

Many of the names of the people who sent the cards were unfamiliar to us, especially the ones that were from cousin Katie, cousin Emmie and cousin Millie postmarked from Brooklyn.

Barbara’s aunt Muriel and her father Forrest were the children of Clinton and Carolyn West. Carolyn was one of six children of John Henry Hudson and Emeline Hicks Raynor. For reasons we can only surmise, Carolyn was raised in Brooklyn by her mother’s cousin Nancy Mills Raynor, known as Millie, and her husband Benjamin Lyman Cowles. Carolyn lived with the Cowles in Brooklyn from the age of four to 17.

We wanted to find out as much as we about the family who raised Barbara’s grandmother and probably sent these cards. Going to search engines such as and Findagrave, looking at census reports for 1880 and 1900, as well as family photos, Barbara was able to find that Nancy Raynor was the daughter of Edward Raynor and his first wife Eliza. It appears that Katie and Emma were the daughters of Edward’s second wife Hannah Reeves. So Katie and Emma were step-cousins to Muriel, and Millie would be an actual first cousin twice removed to young Muriel West. In 1920 Muriel married Charles Wesley Hawkins and continued to live in East Setauket until her death in 1995. The search goes on.

Beverly C. Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit