Monday, September 20

Ms. Clapsaddle of the New York Clapsaddles

How many of us know the name of Ellen Clapsaddle?

It's a lovely name. Good Lord, I don't know of many others as evocative of an era, of many others that so bespeak of a time and place as well as that of "Clapsaddle." It sounds comical, yes, but it also definitely sounds like it comes from somewhere, there's definitely a story behind it. There's some Old West to it, or maybe even some British tincture; there's definitely a career or two in the story of this surname.

I don't know that story.

I do know the craft of this Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle, however, and I'm sure you do too. If you've ever seen a cloyingly sweet, Victorian-era holiday greeting card or Valentine postcard, you've almost certainly seen Ellen's artwork. Every article about her describes her as "prolific," defining an era with her work. One entry even insists that she took the old, demonic-looking (by our contemporary standards) image of Santa Claus and made him the sweet, jolly old man we know him to be. This might not make any sense unless you've actually managed to get your hands on an old newspaper from the early 1900s and have seen their rendition of Santa Claus: far from jolly, he looked lecherous, murderous, and at the very least down on his luck, and if he were to break into someone's house in the middle of the night, leaving gifts under the tree would not be what the newspapers would have to report the next morning.

But certainly, this silly-sounding name was the signature behind an astonishing body of work, not just in how it characterized a span of time, like the Currier and Ives prints, but the sheer volume of produced work. It's important to bear in mind the names of the artists who shaped our culture, and Ms. Clapsaddle's pen truly originated much of how we perceive our modern holidays to appear.