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Popularity of Christmas cards, trees dates to 19th century |

Popularity of Christmas cards, trees dates to 19th century

| Sunday, November 25, 2001 12:00 a.m

Two Christmas season institutions, trees and cards, came into popularity in the 1800s.

The earliest documented use of a Christmas tree in the United States dates back to 1821 in Lancaster County, another historic honor for Pennsylvania.

Cards made their debut in 1846, 155 years ago, when they were first published and issued from Summerly’s Home Treasury office in London, England.

That first commercially published Christmas card, however, irked temperance advocates because its illustration showed members of a family group drinking wine.

The cards did not come into popularity until the 1870s when some art printers started to promote them.

By the 1830s, Christmas trees became centerpieces of public exhibitions in what is generally known as the Pennsylvania Dutch region in the south-central part of the state.

Popularity of the trees increased rapidly and by the mid-1850s were fairly common. By the 1870s, the Christmas tree, now drooping with wax dolls, candles and ornaments, was a national fad and a holiday fascination.

Thus, both cards and trees were quite well established in popularity in the 1870s.

Various other fads came along as well, but did not remain a substantial part of the holiday. One was roast beef or turkey shoots on Christmas Day. Another was school or community programs at a time when Christmas was a rare holiday that could accommodate them.

One such in 1888 in Fayette County involved the presentation of American flags to school authorities for the buildings in its district.

Virginians and Germans were said to celebrate the season more than others. A minister who preached throughout the Westmoreland area wrote in early 1773 of a holiday observance: “Several present appeared almost intoxicated. The holly days are seasons of wild mirth and disorder here.”

Charles Campbell, a pioneer Indiana County settler, was at Wallace’s Fort, a refuge from the Indians, who ventured forth to see what was going on in the fall of 1777. He and others were captured by a group of Indians led by a Frenchman.

Taken to Quebec, he noted in his journal for Dec. 24 that he “went to chapel at 12 o’clock at night.” He also went the next day, but could not understand the French language.

Celebrations were more sophisticated in the larger towns, where delicacies were available. Oysters, ice cream, and lemons could be had at Pittsburgh and the larger river valley cities by 1810.

In a later era, at Connellsville in 1916, sponsors of cockfights scheduled such an event about a mile from town believing they would be safe from interference by county officials because of the holiday.

Fowl from Connellsville, Meyersdale and Uniontown battled it out before 175 spectators at the start, but most left early because it was “too brutal.”

A century ago, last-minute shopping in southwestern Pennsylvania was still done on Christmas morning, in addition to stores staying open late on Christmas Eve. Special bargains were inducements before stores closed at 11 a.m. or noon.

That was back in the days when working hours were much longer and days-off rare.

Whatever, trees and cards have quite firmly become part of the Christmas tradition while other practices changed or failed. And many of the trees came from Indiana County.


Although not preserved, the first hospital west of the Allegheny Mountains was in Westmoreland County, where a new focus is being placed on its outstanding historical heritage.

According to the American Medical Association and other research, that pioneer place of care was established by Dr. David Marchand southwest of Greensburg along Little Sewickley Creek during the Revolutionary War.

Marchand, a Swiss native and son of a Huegenot who fled France because of religious persecution and settled first in Lancaster County, became a physician and surgeon “of eminent ability.”

In August 1770, he settled along the stream in Hempfield Township, about a mile west of the original Harrold settlement and about two miles south of Adamsburg. The location was known later as Log Cabin, along Route 71.

There, he initially built a log cabin (which also served as a school and blockhouse) and practiced medicine. Since Marchand spoke three languages – English, French and German – he was able to relate to the area’s primarily German constituency.

During the Revolutionary War, Marchand began building a stone hospital about 50 yards from his dwelling. The construction process was frequently interrupted by Indian raids.

When completed, the building was about two stories high with an attic measuring 30 by 22 feet. At one end was a covered spring, the water flowing through the ground floor, used as a springhouse. The hospital was on the second floor.

For whatever reasons, despite the historic nature of the site, a marker has never officially been erected there.


Possibly because it was so close to Thanksgiving, Nov. 25 has not been eventful in the years past.

The borough of Bolivar in Westmoreland County was incorporated in 1863.

Avonmore post office, in the same county, was established in 1891.

Torrance State Hospital for care of the mentally ill was opened with five patients in 1917, in the far northeastern corner of Westmoreland.

Fire gutted the First Methodist Church in Greensburg in 1933.

In 1940, on this date, the first Pittsburgh draft contingent of 40 young men passed physical exams and boarded a train for Fort Meade, Md.

Nov. 25 was a Saturday in 1950, and the second day of a three-day, 30.5-inch snowfall (as measured by the Pittsburgh Weather Bureau).


An eventful date that has gradually receded into memory is Dec. 5, 1933. That was when the national prohibition against the sale of alcoholic beverages ended after nearly 13 years.

The Prohibition, as oldsters may remember, was more in written law than in actuality.

But, nonetheless, one historian’s reference book noted that the ending of Prohibition “dampened the boom in most soft drinks and in ice cream sales.”

Two young Gallo brothers at that time invested their entire life savings of $5,900 in a California winery that became the nation’s largest.

Lake Erie-area grape production declined as demand for home winemaking dropped with beverages available legally.

A lemon drink named 7-Up, with a name change from Lithiated Lemon, changed its promotion emphasis to that of a mixer for alcoholic beverages.


Fort Mason Historical Society at Masontown is in danger of itself becoming history, with only about five active members left. The society may be reached at 724-583-2349 or P.O. Box 246, Masontown, PA 15461. It was founded in 1988 and opened its museum in 1992.

The Mountain View Inn near Greensburg has been named a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America, a 42-state collection of hotels selected by the National Trust for historic integrity, architectural quality, and outstanding preservation efforts. Such hotels must also be listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and recognized locally for historic significance.

The Monongahela River Buffs Association does much to recall and publicize the river’s colorful history with a museum at Monongahela. Dr. J.K. Folmar, retired California University of Pennsylvania professor, is its president and editor, and can be reached at 847 Wood St., California, PA 15419.

Fayette County law librarian Elida Micklo, retired head librarian at Connellsville High, has been impressed with the law library’s collections of older books, including a 1765 German Bible. Books may not be borrowed from that library, but copies of material can be made.


Bridge openings have been frequent in southwestern Pennsylvania history, especially during November – and the latter part of the month.

Among early ones were the covered bridges at Blairsville, Nov. 22, 1822, and at West Newton, Nov. 21, 1833.

Some others included Longbridge, west of Ligonier, Nov. 21, 1925; the Ninth Street bridge at New Kensington, Nov. 16, 1927; the new bridge at Saltsburg, Nov. 19, 1985; and the Lane-Bane bridge at Brownsville, Nov. 28, 1962.

Among those with earlier November opening dates were the Charleroi-Monessen bridge in 1907, the Conemaugh River bridge at New Florence in 1979, and the new Scottdale-Everson bridge in 1990.


Nearly a century ago, a strong professional basketball league operated in southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

Among the teams that played in that Central League, as it was named, were Butler (1906-07), Greensburg (1906-07 to 1909-10), Homestead (1906-07 to 1910-11), McKeesport (1906-07 to 1910-11), Pittsburgh South Side (1906-07 to 1911-12), Johnstown (1908-09 to 1911-12), Uniontown (1908-09 to 1911-12), Connellsville (1910-11 and 1911-12), Charleroi (1911-12), and Washington (1911-12).

Several of these towns imported their players from eastern Pennsylvania teams. Greensburg, for example, obtained most of its team from a club based near Philadelphia.

In the early years of independent, semipro, and professional basketball, the South Side played host to several of the top basketball teams in the city – probably because of the industrial vitality of that section of the city in those days.

The Greensburg team played its home games at Keaggy Rink, at the downtown site of the later Strand Theater. Walls were used for out-of-bounds, and the spectators sat above the floor. Star of the Greensburg Tubers was William (Kid) Dark, one of the Philadelphia recruits.

Dark remained at Greensburg for a number of years and died at Potsdam, N.Y., in 1961.

Robert B. Van Atta is history editor of the Tribune-Review.

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