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It Takes a Little Luck O’ the Irish to Secure St. Patrick’s Day Collectibles

by Liz Holderman (03/12/12).

Many of the earliest St. Patrick’s Day collectibles, such as this candy container, were made in Germany from composition, plaster or pressed cardboard.

Enthusiasts who collect vintage holiday decorations greatly enjoy the hunt for St. Patrick’s Day items, especially rare pieces from the early 1900s. In fact, a traditional Irish blessing is very appropriate for these collectors:

May your pockets be heavy
And your heart be light,
May good luck pursue you
Each morning and night.

Luck is certainly needed, because antique holiday decorations were usually made of perishable materials like paper and cardboard, and most of the time, were discarded after use. Christmas adornments are the most popular collectibles (and the easiest to find), because they were generally packed away and saved for the next year. Halloween memorabilia is a close second and items for Thanksgiving, Easter and Valentine’s Day are not far behind. But vintage St. Patrick’s Day ornamentation is relatively scarce and not collected as often.

Paddy’s Day celebrations were often aimed at adults, with dancing, drinking, general revelry and “wearing of the green.” Napkins and hats were bent and soiled, forgotten by the end of the evening and tossed the next day. There weren’t as many children’s parties for this particular holiday, so 80- and 90-year-old Irish-themed items like candy containers, trinkets, party favors, festoons and table displays can be much harder to locate.

St. Patrick’s Day originated as a religious holiday honoring Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, who died in the 5th century. But over time it has become a secular celebration of Irish culture. It is a public holiday in Ireland, commemorated with church services in the morning followed by parades, feasting and parties, and it has been celebrated in the United States since the middle of the 18th century. Symbols of the holiday originated in a variety of ways. The shamrock (Ireland’s national emblem) was chosen because of the legend that St. Patrick used its three leaves to illustrate the Trinity. The color green represents the Emerald Isle itself. Leprechauns, with their pipes and clubbed walking sticks (shillelaghs), come from ancient Irish folklore. And the clarsach—a small harp held on the knee—is a popular instrument that dates back to Ireland’s medieval days.

Four-inch leprechaun candy containers were made in Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s. They were given as party favors, with a few pieces of wrapped candy inside.

This 1910 photo postcard depicts men dressed as St. Patrick and in traditional Irish costumes.

Many of the earliest St. Patrick’s Day collectibles were made in Germany from composition, plaster or pressed cardboard. These included candy containers, figural nodders and lithographed die-cuts. In the United States, companies like Dennison, Beistle and American Tissue Mills made stickers, seals, crepe paper streamers (sold in waxed envelopes), cardboard cut-outs and honeycomb centerpieces. Later, Japanese imports included charming (but lesser-quality) decorations made of accordion paper, pipe cleaners, felt and spun cotton. Unused decorations from the first half of the 20th century can be very difficult to find today.

Boxes of embossed harp place cards (sold in waxed envelopes) were made by Dennison in the 1920s. Unused examples are very hard to find today.

Dennison also made party favors, such as shamrock crepe paper streamers.

But it’s the “luck o’ the Irish” for postcard collectors, because those are much easier to uncover in antique stores, flea markets and shows featuring paper and ephemera. From 1900 until around 1915, the exchange of holiday postcards was an extremely popular pastime. Millions of cards were mailed, collected and showcased in specialty albums. And every holiday was an excuse to add to a personal collection. Postcards could be removed from the albums and displayed as part of the holiday décor—they were hung from a decorative string by clothespins or tucked into the corners of picture frames.

Because they were safely kept in albums, and often passed down to the next generation, there is now a proliferation of antique St. Patrick’s Day cards available on the secondary market. Many were embossed, flocked in green or highlighted in gold or silver, and they were inscribed with hearty sentiments like “Erin Go Bragh!” and “Top o’ the Morning.” Cards produced by Ellen Clapsaddle, John Winsch, Samuel Schmucker, Frances Brundage and Raphael Tuck & Sons are especially recognizable and often prized by collectors.

An early 1900s St. Patrick’s Day postcard.

A St. Patrick’s Day postcard by Frances Brundage.

“Top of the Morning on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Because they are more readily available, many people collect modern St. Patrick’s Day items, like shamrock jewelry, beer mugs, figurines and even pipes. But those who search for vintage decorations can be greatly rewarded when one of these elusive gems is discovered. Indeed, finding a leprechaun candy container from the 1920s can be just like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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