When Janet Davis, an artist and entrepreneur, bought the Job Kean property in Brookfield, Bonavista Bay, in 1995, she bought more than a neglected house and general store that sat vacant for 20 years.
In the attic of the house, she found a treasure trove of greeting cards that included 234 Christmas cards from the Kean family, many with handwritten notes dating back to as early as 1906.
The Kean family were known for their involvement in the seal fishery: Captain Job Kean was the nephew of Newfoundland’s most famous sealer, Captain Abram Kean. Job Kean was an active businessman in the community, owning eight sealing vessels and the general store that was the centre of commerce for the Brookfield area. Job Kean and his wife, Virtue Hann, built the store in 1890.
Today there is a new and thriving enterprise on the old Kean property. Ms. Davis, after lovingly restoring the shop to its former glory, operates the Norton’s Cove Studio in the award-winning heritage structure.
Ms. Davis donated the greeting cards to the Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University Libraries, in 2010. Despite the fact that the house and shop were in a state of disrepair with much neglect and vandalism, the intricate and delicate cards survived.
They show the early Christmas card as a miniature art form. They feature vibrant colours, metallic inks, embossed and pierced paper, and fabric appliqué and die-cutting in elaborately shaped cards.
1/ Greetings from Magic Baking Powder
2/ With Sincere Christmas Greetings
3/ New Year
4/ A Very Merry Christmas
5/ May Christmas mirth wed New Year joy
6/ Calendar, 1908
7/ Calendar, 1913
“Some of the cards that really stand out for me are the ones from the war era,” said Ms. Davis.
“Job Kean’s son, Baxter, who was a private during the First World War, would send personalized cards describing all kinds of things going on in the war.”
Ms. Davis also creates her own original watercolour cards and has used some of the original designs as her inspiration.
“These cards existed from a time before there were roads, telephones and cars connecting communities.”
Some cards depict the symbols we now associate with Christmas cards, like winter scenes, holly, country churches and evergreens, but many do not. There are forget-me-nots and roses and many cards draw attention to general expressions of Christmas kindness.
“These cards existed from a time before there were roads, telephones and cars connecting communities,” said Linda White, archivist with Memorial University Libraries.
“So, people would send mail by boat and cards held important Christmas messages and represented ways for families to stay connected when they missed each other the most.”
Community and connection
In an age when holiday greetings can be emailed or cards can simply be sent by filling out an online form, the art of the Christmas card seems worth revisiting and celebrating as a reminder of the importance of community and connection in a noisy world.
You can view the entire collection of cards online or visit the reading room of the Archives and Special Collection in the Queen Elizabeth II Library.