Diplomatic Holiday Greetings

This is a guest post by Connie L. Cartledge, Senior Archives Specialist in the Manuscript Division.

Shadow of camera on the ground with greeting, "This is taking you ---- very best wishes for 1939 ..."

Marvin’s greeting card for 1938, Box 67, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

As holiday cards start to arrive in November and December, I am reminded of the Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Papers. When I led a team to process the collection, I was amazed by the quantity of Christmas cards that Patterson received, thirteen document boxes dating from 1927 to 2002, and intrigued by the distinctive cards she and her husband sent. Patterson’s cards convey more than holiday greetings; they provide insight into her career as a photographer and her life as the spouse of a foreign service officer.

Although born in 1905 at a time when women found it difficult to pursue careers, Patterson was an exception, achieving a successful career as a photographer, journalist, radio broadcaster, and cinematographer by the age of thirty-five. Marvin, as she was primarily known, operated her own photography studio in New York City from 1935 to 1939, and her season’s greeting for 1938 showcases her burgeoning career as a photographer containing a silhouette of a photographer and camera with her handwritten note: “This is taking you —— my best wishes for 1939.”

Christmas card with couple near window, woman seated on window ledge, looking out window at bombing raids over Berlin, 1940.

Marvin’s greeting card for 1940, Box 37, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Patterson papers contain no holiday card for 1939. With her career expanding as a photojournalist, perhaps, she had no time to send them. In that pivotal year, Patterson was on assignment in Switzerland when Germany invaded Poland. After Germany’s invasion, she quickly traveled to England and took the first photographs published in America of a London air raid shelter, a facility unfortunately destined to be in great use then and in the near future. Her photography assignments led to a brief stint as one of the “Murrow Boys,” a group of radio journalists who worked with Edward R. Murrow for CBS radio during World War II. Marvin’s career also reacquainted her with a friend from her past, Jefferson Patterson, a foreign service officer. This renewed friendship led to their marriage in June 1940. Once married, Marvin gave up her journalism career because officials at the Department of State thought it would be a conflict of interest with her husband’s diplomatic duties.

Marvin’s holiday card in 1940 reflected this monumental change in her life and the difficulty of the newlyweds’ posting in Berlin, Germany. While stationed there, the couple endured the terror of air raids. Patterson herself experienced 48 raids in less than a year.[1] Documenting a war in which the United States was not yet involved, the Pattersons’ Christmas card contained an illustration of a British plane captured in German searchlights during a nighttime bombing raid while the couple watched from their window. The caption read, “Christmas Lights.”

The Pattersons’ Christmas cards from 1941 to 1958 reflected postings in Peru, Belgium, Egypt,

Greeting card showing a black and white photograph of Marvin and Jeff Patterson with their dog.

Marvin’s greeting card for 1946, Box 67, Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Greece, and Uruguay. The couple’s greetings usually incorporated artwork or a photograph representing the country where they were located. Greetings from Peru and Egypt included reproductions of paintings and artwork. One of my favorites is their 1946 card from Cairo. A photograph inside the card captures the Pattersons with their German shepherd, Diane, on a porch with a tranquil landscape as a backdrop. Wherever the Pattersons were sent, they tried to learn about the local inhabitants and their culture, which is reflected in their holiday greetings. Lives are not defined by seasonal correspondence, but Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson’s Christmas cards provide more than holiday cheer, serving as a window into her life and career.

The Pattersons’ holiday greetings, both sent and received, are a part of the Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Papers. The Manuscript Division also holds the Jefferson Patterson Papers.

[1] Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, My American Century: The Memoirs of Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson ([Silver Spring, Md.]: MARPAT Foundation, 2006), 145.

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!