Vintage Christmas Music – Records, Albums

The golden age of popular Christmas music started right around the time that the great depression was ending and lasted for over 25 years. It was part of a phenomenon fueled by the convergence of disparate developments, all coming together in a way that might be hard for us to envision today.

Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph over 50 years earlier, it took until the 1930’s for a generally accepted format to become widely established. By this time, the 78 RPM record was king. Prior to this established format, each manufacturer produced both records and record players, and they were not interchangeable. The standardization of sound recording and playback was the first piece of the puzzle. Now, record companies could produce and distribute albums, and it could be played on any manufacturers record player.

Around that same time, movies began to have synchronized sound, meaning they could talk and sing. Although movies had been popular since the turn of the century, they were largely considered entertainment for children, and the working masses. With the advent of sound, movies had a surge of popularity, with an appeal to all people. The movie musical was born.

As “talkies” were coming out in the theaters, the world bore witness to the invention of the microphone. Amplified sound, ironically, lead to a singer being able to use nuanced phrasing to express the emotions of a song. Prior to this, a singer had to be a ‘belter’, so that the song could be heard in the last row of the balcony. Arguably, one of the early benefactors of this new technology was Bing Crosby. He had a big hit in 1935 of Silent Night; it foreshadowed the beginning of an era.

Christmas Records Christmas AlbumsAlthough today, we tend to identify a single song with a particular singer, and perhaps a singer writing his or her own songs, that was not the case before the mid 1950’s. During this earlier period, many singers would record the same song. If the song was a hit there would be plenty of work for songwriters. Even in the depression, when work was tough to find for many people, the entertainment industry had a need for songwriters to supply the demand for movie scores. The Broadway musical, as we know it today, was also developing in this same early period. And then, after W.W.II, came two huge trends: the baby boom, and a prolonged period of affluence which propelled a large number of people into the middle class. People had money to spend; they spent it on themselves, and they spent it on their children. The combination of musical movies, broadway shows and a plethora of songwriters created a broad, prolific period of sophisticated, and skillfully written American popular music, with an attendant proliferation of Christmas tunes.

Collecting Christmas music can be broadly classified into two areas: the music itself; and then all the visual tools used to sell the music. Early on, sheet music established the practice of using attractive illustrations to sell music. Collecting sheet music is a sub-category onto itself. Almost all popular Christmas music of the period could be available in sheet music.

Developments in marketing led to the picture sleeve. This was a protective piece of paper, in envelope form, into which a record could be placed. The picture sleeve, started with children’s records after W.W.II, and spread into all music shortly thereafter. It became the way to visually attract the customer to the record. They are often colorful and are collected in their own right. They developed at the same time the seven inch, 45 RPM record (the one with the big hole) became the standard for selling a single song.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, when the 10 inch 78 RPM was the main format, a group of records could be purchased in an album. That is, the music from a movie or Broadway show was put onto a group of records, and the records were sold in a folder with pages that held the records and resembled a book or “album”. Hence, the derivative of the word. The cover of the album was often a scene from the show, or some other illustration conveying visually what was inside musically. When the 12″ LP developed in the mid 1950’s, the word album was still used. This time, the large format gave illustrators a bigger area to show off their work. These albums are also collectible, and a very important part of collecting music.

Some collectors enjoy the sound of the early records, and actually play their collections. Other collectors just like the appearance of the album, and collect them as such. A tremendous amount of early Christmas music is available in modern formats, and some collectors enjoy listening to early recordings in that way. Often, the illustration which was used on an early record is replicated on the cover of a modern CD.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Dickens Christmas CarolChristmas was a festive celebration in Victorian England. During this time, Christmas cards and Christmas crackers first appeared. Also, thanks to Prince Albert, the English began to place decorated Christmas trees in their homes. During this early time of Christmas, between mid-October and the end of November in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote the masterpiece called A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote of a miser, Scrooge, who finds the Christmas spirit through a series of ghosts who appear in his dreams. Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day a changed man. He opens his heart to all. The story ends with Tiny Tim’s “God Bless Us, Every One!”

A Christmas Carol has been available in print for nearly 164 years. Throughout it’s life, this classic tale has had many illustrators. The original manuscript, which was illustrated by John Leech, is housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Dickens insisted on overseeing its printing because the story was one of his favorite works. A facsimile of this original manuscript is available for purchase.In 1914, one of England’s best loved illustrators, Arthur Rackham, illustrated the tale, breathing new life into the classic story. Rackham gave flawless interpretations of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley and the other characters. No matter what edition you may own, reading A Christmas Carol always evokes the true meaning of Christmas for everyone.

Children’s Christmas Books

Throughout the years, children’s books, especially those depicting a holiday theme, have remained consistently popular Christmas gifts. Some of the most highly sought after children’s Christmas books were produced during the Victorian era. Top publishers at the time included McLoughlin Brothers, Nister, Graham, Donohue, Hurst and Dutton. Each of these children’s books contained various Christmas or seasonal stories and poems by different authors. Some for these children’s literary classics were even part of a series. Both Santa Claus and children dominated the cover designs. During this period is was not uncommon for these books to be undated.

Christmas Tree Land BookThe actual construction of these holiday children’s book consists of paper-covered front and back boards and a linen spine. The pages were manufactured from heavy stock and stapled directly to the spine. As printing processes became more advanced in the latter half of the 19th century, the use of bold, brightly colored lithography was introduced. The cover boards of these children’s books would be colorfully illustrated and the interior would contain one or more color book plates in addition to many black and white illustrations.

Kris Kringle BookWhen you are purchasing an antique children’s book, make sure to always examine it closely. The condition is paramount. Is the cover loose? Are the pages separated or separating from the spine? Are there any missing or torn pages? Have the color plates been removed? Check for stains, insect damage, musty odors, pencil marks and finger smudges. Age-darkened pages are acceptable. “Foxing” (brown spots) is not something you want when purchasing a vintage children’s book. Minor wear is to be expected. Extensive wear significantly reduces the value of the book. Most importantly, handle an antique children’s book carefully so it lasts for many more Christmases to come.