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Decoration Day and Memorial Day Postcards

May 22nd, 2007 · No Comments

With the Memorial Day holiday coming up this weekend, we thought we’d explore how this holiday has evolved in vintage postcards. The changes may surprise you.

Decoration Day Postcard

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, as the embossed patriotic postcard above shows, and was intended to remember Union troops who died in the Civil War. It fittingly began as a black history celebration, with the first impromptu Decoration Day observed in 1865 by liberated slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, at a site which had been both a Confederate prison camp and a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity. Thousands of emancipated blacks and Union soldiers marched in a parade which was followed by rousing patriotic songs and a picnic. However, Waterloo, New York gets the credit as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, because the village formally observed the holiday on 5 May 1866.


Major General John A. Logan helped popularize what was then known as “Decoration Day.” On 5 May 5 1868, while commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic a veterans’ organization, he issued a proclamation calling for nationwide observance of Decoration Day; the first national observance occurred that year on 30 May, a date chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle. Publishers such as Raphael Tuck created Decoration Day postcards and artists such as Ellen Clapsaddle, working for the International Art Publishing Co., created dramatic patriotic compositions. Tuck also published a series of much scarcer Confederate Memorial Day postcards; the South, unwilling for years to participate in a holiday honoring Union dead, didn’t adopt Memorial Day celebrations for the most part until after World War I, as Memorial Day began to take on a larger meaning commemorating all war dead. The above c. 1907-1915 postcard, which has a Winsch back, is from Decoration Day Series No. 3.

Memorial Day Postcard

The alternative Memorial Day name, first used in 1882, didn’t become more common until after World War II. It wasn’t until 1967 that it was declared the holiday’s official name by Federal law. This colorful c. 1907-1915 Memorial Day postcard incorporates numerous patriotic elements including the U.S. Capitol, flag motifs, a Union soldier beating a drum which bears part of the Pledge of Allegiance, and laurel wreaths which, since ancient Greek times, have signified victory. Have a Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Browse the Decoration Day postcards at our website.

Read about another forgotten holiday and see Washington’s Birthday postcards.

Copyright ©2007 VintagePostcards.org


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