No United States President took more personal interest in the annual White House Christmas cards than the Great General Ike himself.
Dwight Eisenhower: The President-Artist
Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) was a man of many hobbies – poker, bridge, fishing, golf – and he was very good at all of them. Perhaps his most relaxing avocation, which he came by fairly late in his career, was painting. He would become a fine amateur artist.
Ike was introduced to painting by Winston Churchill, a fair amateur painter himself, and the General took to it rapidly and enjoyed the restfulness of art. Public regard for his talents (like those of Churchill) were perhaps enhanced by his other achievements, but they were still worthy endeavors. He himself had little pretensions and was sincerely modest about his artistic efforts, and was always pleasantly surprised when friends eagerly requested one of his canvases.
The Eisenhower Christmas Cards and Gifts
White House Christmas cards from the Presidential family had been around for decades, as were gifts to the presidential and White House staff. Since the list was a large one and growing, and the President paid for them personally, the gifts were usually photographs of the First Couple or the White House or its treasures. This still applies today. Photos are apropos and relatively inexpensive to reproduce in large quantities..
It was Joyce C. Hall, a fellow midwesterner who became a personal friend, who suggested that reproduction prints of Ike’s own paintings might make a fine gift and/or greeting card. Hall was an expert on that subject, since his company, Hallmark, was preeminent in that field.
Hall’s idea was to reproduce one of Ike’s paintings and enclose it in a specially crafted presentation folder with an accompanying card. These could be given to senior level White House staff members as well as to cabinet officers and high-ranking government associates. Extra “accompanying” greeting cards, featuring the Presidential seal and printed greeting, would be sent to Ike’s larger list of officialdom. His first order, in 1953, was for 1100 keepsake folders and an additional 1100 engraved cards.
There would also be an order for 500 “Mamie and Ike” cards for their personal friends. (Their bill, by the way, was $139.50.)
The Growing Christmas List
The reproductions of Ike’s paintings was a huge hit, and with the exception of two Christmases (when he was ill), would continue through both his terms. The first two cards featured his predecessors Lincoln and Washington, which he copied from the famous Alexander Gardner photograph and the Gilbert Stuart painting. Subsequent Ike paintings were landscapes.
In addition to the “official” cards and presentation folders, Ike gave his thumbs-up to a complete novelty as far as Presidential greetings went: Hallmark artists created informal cartoon-ish “Mamie-bangs” cards for their growing list of private friends. The cartoons were based on the trademark hairstyle of Mamie Eisenhower, the popular First Lady. It was a total departure from the formal Christmas cards of past presidents – and future ones. No other President would do so with his White House greetings.
The “Ike and Mamie” cards would also be hand signed (in those days before the autopen), and frequently a personal note was added by the President or First Lady. By 1960, the last year of the Eisenhower administration, the official list had nearly tripled. The order was for 3100 cards. In the eight years that Ike was in office, Hallmark produced 38 different Christmas cards and gift prints for the First Couple.
The White House Christmas Cards Today
Sending Christmas cards from the White House today is a huge enterprise. Dozens of volunteers spend a month or more hand-addressing the tens of thousands of seasonal greetings that the current President and First Lady (whoever they may be) need to send. These include officialdom the world over, politicians great and small throughout the country, hundreds of personal friends and thousands upon thousands of citizen well-wishers who will treasure a return greeting.
There are “President and Mrs.” cards, just plain “President” cards, just plain “Mrs.” cards – and probably even cards from Presidential children. Then there are just plain “first names” of the President and First Lady for their families and close friends. Most are printed signatures. Many are auto-penned. Some are staff-signed, and a rare few (percentage-wise) are authentically hand signed.
The entire Christmas card task usually falls to the First Lady. She is the one who will work with the chosen manufacturers and designers and photographers to select the “perfect” card and all its ingredients. Plans start immediately after the previous Christmas, and are well under way by spring. It is a major big deal.
Good manners dictate that all White House greetings be acknowledged. If you, private citizen, send a card to the President, you may not get a return card this year, but you will likely get one next year. In today’s digital world, however, some of these returned greetings may be digital (if you provide an email address).
It is very unlikely that the Christmas card “spirit” will ever equal that of Ike and Mamie however. It has grown much too complex. And the cost is a LOT more than $139.50.
Seeley, Mary Evans – Seasons Greetings from the White House: The Collection of Presidential Christmas Cards, Messages and Gifts – 1996, MasterMedia Book