Vintage Greeting Cards in the Barber and Towler Papers (PC.1995): Christmas and New Year’s, 1920

[This blog post was written by Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist, Special Collections Section, State Archives of North Carolina.]

The Barber and Towler Papers (PC.1995) are one of various Private Collections that include a box or at least a series devoted exclusively to greeting cards. This particular collection has only vintage cards, with most being Christmas and New Year’s greetings. Though many were sent by businesses, including The Raleigh Times, the example below is a 1920 Christmas postcard sent to the residence of Mr. and Mrs. James J. Towler, Raleigh, North Carolina.

The side of the card with the address and stamp includes the notation that the card was “Whitney Made.”  Behind that trademark is a fascinating bit of greeting card history with a small but significant North Carolina connection. “Whitney Made” refers especially to George Clarkson Whitney (1842–1915), Worcester, Massachusetts native. In 1861 George enlisted in the Union Army, entering as a private in the 51st Regiment. Later in his military service, George was a clerk in the Provost Marshal’s Office, working with Major Harkness at Beaufort, North Carolina, which fell under Federal occupation during 1862.

George returned home after the end of the Civil War and entered business with his brother, Sumner, who owned a wholesale stationary store. As a sideline, Sumner and his wife were also handcrafting valentine cards.  It was thought that the trauma of war was partly assuaged by the expression of feelings and sentimentality, thus the surge in the sale of valentines and other cards. After Sumner’s death, George purchased the business and renamed it the George C. Whitney Co.  Around 1875, Whitney added other holiday cards, including the popular themes of Christmas and New Year’s.

By the time the Christmas postcard shown above reached Mr. and Mrs. Towler, George Whitney had passed away. The company continued, however, under his son, Warren, and later under his grandson, George. The business employed almost 500 people and continued to thrive.

Yet the George C. Whitney company could not withstand the paper shortage brought on by World War II. The Telegram and Gazette reported on March 1, 1942 that Whitney Made, “the largest and oldest manufacturer of valentines in the world, announced it would voluntarily liquidate its business.” [See additional history at “Whitney Made: The Man behind A Valentine Empire,” by Chad Sirois.]

See below samples of other cards sent and received by Barber & Towler, of Raleigh, and by Mr. and Mrs. James J. Towler, most dating to 1920, or before. Do enjoy the season in your own style, though I so hope that this blog gives you an enjoyable taste of how North Carolinians of almost 100 years ago sent greetings of the season to their friends and customers. This post concludes with a brief historical note on the firm of Barber and Towler. Like the George C. Whitney and Co., the former company made a mark on the business community, but did not survive to the middle of the 20th century.

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Historical note on the firm of Barber & Towler of Raleigh, N.C. from the collection’s finding aid: The company was established in 1874 by Joseph W. Barber. In the latter part of the century the business was known as J. W. Barber & Son, until the untimely death of the son, J.M. Barber. James J. Towler, the son-in-law of the senior Mr. Barber, entered the firm, and the name was changed to Barber & Towler. By 1910 the business operated on East Martin Street in downtown Raleigh. They manufactured harnesses and were agents for Babcock, Tyson and Jones; Anchor and Rock Hill carriages; and Mitchell, Old Hickory and Nissen wagons.