Among the many materials in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division that focus on book design and fine printing are nearly two-dozen small chapbooks popularly known as Robert Frost‘s “Christmas Cards.” The chapbooks, first issued in 1929 and annually from 1934-1962, are collectible curiosities. While you might expect each one to feature a Frost poem about Christmas, only two of the thirty-five cards that were printed focus on the holiday, while three of them feature a piece of prose or selection from a play.
The original idea to publish a Christmas card was not Frost’s. Instead, credit goes to Joseph Blumenthal, founder of the fine press publisher Spiral Press. While setting the type for the 1930 edition of Frost’s Collected Poems, Blumenthal had an inspired thought: A special printing of Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees” (see first page of poem) would make the perfect holiday greeting for his friends! Blumenthal subsequently produced 275 copies of a “Christmas Trees” chapbook with the permission of Frost’s publisher (H. Holt and Company), but without the knowledge of Frost himself. Frost would later learn of Blumenthal’s printing and, although slightly upset, request six copies of the chapbook for his own use. Five years later, with Frost’s support, a second chapbook was printed and a holiday tradition born. Blumenthal describes the growth of this tradition in the booklet Robert Frost and the Spiral Press:
As the years passed, what started out as a small reprint for greetings to our friends became a special tradition of Frost first editions. The first cards were made for the poet, the printer, and one or two members of the Holt staff. In 1935, J. J. Lankes made a woodcut for “Neither Out For Nor In Deep” and so bartered his graphic work for the right to a run of the booklets with his own greeting for his own Christmas mailing. Thereafter most of the booklets carried decorations and illustrations by artists who participated as partners in the holiday spirit. Later on, Frost’s publishers joined, and booklets were printed for them to be sent all around the country.
In all, 25 of the 35 chapbooks were printed by Spiral Press, ranging in length from 4 to 20 pages. Print runs varied widely, though generally grew with each year, ranging from a low of 52 copies (Two Leading Lights, 1944) to a high of 17,055 copies (The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics…., 1962). Among the artists who created designs for the chapbooks were Thomas W. Nason, Fritz Eicheberg, Armin Landeck, Joseph Low, Antonio Frasconi, and Leonard Baskin, whose works for Gehenna Press are comprehensively collected by the Library. Frost’s Christmas chapbooks, in fact, are a wonderful example of the longstanding collaboration between book artists and literary artists in the creation of fine press publications.
If you have any questions about the Rare Book and Special Collection Division’s copies of Frost’s “Christmas cards,” or its Fine Press collection, let us know. If you’re interested in learning more about the chapbooks in general, a descriptive bibliography listing every chapbook appears in Joan St. C. Crane’s Robert Frost: A Descriptive Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia, pp. 108-144. More reader-friendly features on the cards are offered online through the Academy of American Poets, The New York Times ArtsBeat blog, and New Hampshire Public Radio. The largest collection of Frost’s Christmas cards may be held by Dartmouth College’s Rauner Special Collections Library, whose Frost collection includes more than 500 copies.
In the spirit of Robert Frost, From the Catbird seat wishes our readers a happy holiday season. May it be filled, travel travails and shopping stress notwithstanding, with more bloom than doom!