Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (January 8, 1865 - January 7, 1934) was an American illustrator/commercial artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only is her style greatly admired and well recognized, today she is recognized as the most prolific souvenir/postcard and greeting card artist of her era.
She was the child of Dennis L. and Harriet (Beckwith) Clapsaddle. From an early age she loved to draw—she is said to have been a shy and delicate child who displayed artistic ability and was highly encouraged by her parents to develop her skills in art.
Clapsaddle was the great-granddaughter of the American Revolutionary War hero, Major Dennis Clapsaddle.
Clapsaddle attended a one-room school until the 8th grade. She then boarded in Richfield Springs, Otsego County, New York, and attended the local Richfield Springs Seminary, a local academy (later known as high schools) in Richfield Springs that prepared young ladies for higher education, today known as a college. She graduated in 1882.
Her parents and teachers highly encouraged her to pursue a career in art. She applied and received a scholarship to attend a selective private college for two years, the Cooper Institute known as the Cooper Union Institute for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. Only highly recognized individuals are chosen to attend this college and all attend on scholarship.
Upon the completion of her studies, around 1884, she returned to her parents' home in South Columbia. She placed an ad in a local newspaper to offer private painting lessons and began her career of teaching art out of her home.
Developing Her Artwork
Clapsaddle started by giving art lessons in her home in South Columbia. At the same time she created her own landscapes and was commissioned to paint portraits of families in Richfield Springs. She also submitted her work to publishers in New York City and became a recognized commercial artist. She was a freelance artist and her illustrations were often used in advertising and on porcelain goods, calendars, paper fans, trade and greeting cards.
Clapsaddle's greatest success was in the development of her artwork into single-faced cards that could be kept as souvenirs or mailed as postcards and she specialized in designing illustrations specifically for that purpose. Artistic designs had become highly prized particularly during the peak of production of the "golden age of souvenir/postcards" (1898–1915) for their great marketing possibilities. Clapsaddle is credited with over 3000 designs in the souvenir/post card field.
Several of the themes in her artwork command high interest given the variety and occasions for their use.
- Valentine's Day- with or without children
- St. Patrick's Day- more than 80 different cards
- Fourth of July- showing George Washington, Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty, eagles, cannons, flags, the liberty bell, fireworks, Revolutionary War figures, nautical subjects, etc.,
- Halloween- some of the most highly prized by collectors
- Christmas - including transportation designs as a theme with Irish families in automobiles of that period on the highways, or airplanes in the skies and even on dirigibles.
Her identity and background have remained obscure.
"...Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle was destined to become the most prolific postcard and greeting card artist of her time."
"...renowned for her gift of painting adorable children, one of the most famous and sought after artists (of souvenir/postcards) ... her artwork has universal appeal..."
"...her art expressed an innocence and joy of life that emanated from the child-like happiness deep within her."
"...her distinctive style allows many connoisseurs of her art the ability to recognize the details of her artwork."
"...her designs reflect the entire spectrum of seasonal and holiday themes, drawing upon folklore, traditions, games and nursery rhymes."
"Reproductions of her illustrations frequently appear on contemporary vintage-style decorative accessories as well."
More than half of the estimated over 3,000 signed souvenir/postcards, as Ellen H. Clapsaddle, as well as the unsigned ones, show illustrations of children in their full innocence and sweet faces while the rest show scenes that are more general. Many of them include children of different races and cultures of the world. Collectors have come to recognize the quality and charming nature of her personal style and work without question or dispute.
Not only are the "original" single-faced cards sought after by collectors, the large numbers of them that have survived for over 100 years, whether signed or unsigned, attest to the longevity of the appeal of her artwork. In particular, her "mechanical" cards or anything else with her name on it, or not, are highly sought after by collectors of her work.
In recent years, more than 100 years later, her artwork is still as popular today as it was when it first appeared in the commercial art world. Her work is so admired that it is generating new types of items to display her artwork since the copyright notices have expired, such as:
- Clapsaddle Private Collections on CDs containing more than 300 of her souvenir/postcards;
- Downloadable ClipArt;
- Art Poster Prints as unframed art in enlarged versions of 29" x 20" available for framing; 4) Publications recently printed with images of her work for the modern collectors to use as a guide in obtaining some of the original ones;
- Iron-on Appliqués for transfer to items of clothing;
- Reproduction postcards as new issue;
- New art by contemporary artists like a Large Santa Claus and a Patriotic Santa in a 40" x 26" frame;
- New popcorn and cookie tins as well as reproductions of advertisements bearing her artwork.
Some private collectors have amassed more than 1,600 original Clapsaddles, as her souvenir/postcards are commonly known. The original cards have appeared in local and state trade shows for years and many websites have large numbers available where the number varies from 900 to 1,000 cards are offered surpassing the numbers available for other artists of similar work.
A few years ago, the Richland Springs local newspaper announced the display of some of her work locally, especially a 1900 calendar. She received a great deal of praise in the daintiness of the designs, the originality of the work, and the little verses that illustrate her drawings.
Recently, a memory book for wedding occasions, called "The New Wedding Album" illustrated by Clapsaddle and published by Eaton & Mains, has come to light. It is made in half-silk and white paper boards and it is decoratively stamped in silver with floral motifs.
A long-time collector, Elizabeth Austin, created a "checklist" of Clapsaddle's souvenir/postcards for other collectors so they can identify the ones they do not have. Ellen Budd expanded on the list with many missing cards and has published them as a reference work (see the Bibliography section below).
Without any knowledge about her identity and unaware of who she was, collectors have persisted in guarding her artwork for safekeeping as a testament of love and respect of the quality and admiration for her particularly beautiful designs. So, despite the high quality and enormous popularity of her artwork, few people have known about her persona story; something that has become a matter of great interest, study, and research in the last few years. Her name has been famous for decades in her hometown area of Richfield Springs, NY, and in the collecting circles where many collectors have specialized strictly in the collection of just her work and her work alone.
Clapsaddle's father died on January 5, 1891, and she and her mother went to live with an aunt in Richfield Springs. Clapsaddle spent her next fourteen years not only giving art lessons, but also creating and selling illustrations, landscapes, and portraits commissioned by local wealthy families, and freelance artwork that she submitted to various publishers through the mail out of an art studio in downtown Richfield Springs.
Initially, two of her designs were accepted by the International Art Publishing Company in New York City to be used as souvenir/postcards that became an immediate success as bestsellers. After that initial purchase of two designs, several others followed and they retained her to work along with other artists. Because she became their premier illustrator due to the popularity and successful marketability of her designs, the company invited her to move to the city around 1895.
Soon, by 1901, the International Art Publishing Company also offered her a paid 2-year trip to Germany for her and her mother. While in Germany, she refined her art talent by working directly and closely with the German engravers who were the actual manufacturers of the products offered for sale. Her designs started to appear in various forms like Valentines, souvenir/postcards, booklets, watercolor prints, calendars, and trade cards and other objects in the world of advertising.
By this time, Germany was the center of the high-end publishing world and many publishers in the United States depended on them for the final products that were shipped to the U.S. Clapsaddle was in Germany when her mother, died on March 2, 1905.
Clapsaddle spent some years in Germany, funded by the International Art Publishing Company, and then returned to New York around 1906. It is said that she established the Wolf Company backed by the Wolf brothers—a full subsidiary of the International Art Publishing Company of New York City. She was the first and only female souvenir/postcard artist of the era to establish her own enterprise. She was the sole artist and designer for this company.
At that time, few women were even employed as full-time illustrators. For 8 years she and the Wolf brothers enjoyed their success and there seemed to be no limit to the growth potential in the souvenir/postcard industry. (Some sources suggest that she was employed by the Wolf brothers). Nevertheless, confidence in the boom and high return in profits in this specialized area of commercial art during this boom period, led her and her partners to invest heavily in the years that followed in many Germany engraving and publishing firms. She returned once again to Germany to work with the engravers and publishers they used because they had the best printing plants.
The postcard and greeting card business was doing well, and Clapsaddle was making good money most of which she invested in German printing firms.
World War I
By 1914, the war broke out. The majority of the souvenir/postcard publishers in the United States depended on German supplying firms but once they became disconnected from them, they had to go out of business. Many German factories suffered total destruction from bombings and all of Clapsaddle's recent original artwork was lost along with the investments in those firms because of the destruction of the records and messages going back and forth between the continents that never arrived or were never answered. Clapsaddle was totally displaced and could not be found. She was penniless, lost, and alone in a far away land in the middle of the turmoil of the First World War.
By 1915, many firms in the United States, like the Wolf Company, did not have a business any more and in their case, their sole designer-artist was lost in Germany.
Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917. Between 1914 and 1919, Clapsaddle was trapped and unable to leave the country. The end of the engraving and publishing industry in Germany came about suddenly and so did her livelihood and her future—so did her life and spirit and desire to live as she witnessed and suffered the war first hand.
With the end of the war in 1919, nothing was known in the United States about Clapsaddle's fate. One or two of the Wolf brothers borrowed money so they could go to search for her in Europe. She was finally found six months later. By then, she had had a complete mental breakdown as a victim of the war, was wandering through the streets hungry and sick, and her health and spirit were totally broken—she was only 55 years old. When the Wolf brothers approached her, she was so disconnected from the world and reality that she barely recognized them. The Wolf brothers brought her back to the United States.
Unmarried and childless, Clapsaddle had no close relatives. Furthermore, she had spent all of her time and productive years dedicated to her artwork and there was no one to take care of her under those circumstances. The Wolf brothers took care of her as long as they were able and alive but they too died destitute and poor. When they passed on, she was left penniless, alone, unable to work, and mentally incapacitated. She had lost the ability to make a living and her deteriorating health rapidly became a major obstacle.
She was admitted to the Peabody Home for the elderly and destitute on Pelham Parkway in New York City in January 1932. One day short of her 69th birthday in 1934 she died. Like many residents of the home who had no relatives, she was buried in a potters' grave. She died totally destitute through no fault of her own just like the Wolf brothers—innocent victims of the world tragedy of the First World War.
It had been her dying wish to be buried at the Lakewood Cemetery in Richfield Springs, NY. Some time after World War II, an appeal was made in the community of Richfield Springs and through local generosity funds were raised to help fulfill her dying wish, her remains were transferred and re-interred next to her father's grave. Her marker reads, simply, "ELLEN." (A record of her mother's grave has not been found).
Despite the tragedy in Clapsaddle’s final outcome and the end of her life, she continues to live in the pleasure that her artwork continues to provide everyone who admires her images in any shape or form, even 100 years after she created them, and for many years more to come in the hands of admirers and collectors of her artwork.
Clapsaddle's name appears frequently in newspaper and magazine articles that discuss the postcards and greeting cards collectibles market. Her work is included and appears in any collection of vintage postcard art, or discussions about that art:
- Halloween Postcard Book—by Ellen Clapsaddle and others, Applewood Books; 10pp., 2004.
- Ellen H. Clapsaddle Signed Post Cards: An Illustrated Reference Guide, Ellen H. Budd, EH Budd; 194pp., 1989.
- The Official Guide to Flea Market Prices, 2nd edition, Harry Rinker, House of Collectibles; 512pp., 2004.
- Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, David J. Skal, 256pp., 2002.
- Picking Through Old Postcards, Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson, Scripps Howard News Service[dead link]
- "My Heart is a Child", Emotions Greeting Cards
- The Art of Ellen Clapsaddle by Baby Janet[dead link]
- http://www.Victorianparlourpostcards.com[dead link]
- Pamela Wiggins
- "The Art of Ellen Clapsaddle", Petticoat Education
- Pamela Wiggins. "Ellen Clapsaddle Profile - The Artistry of Ellen Clapsaddle". about.com. Retrieved 2010-04-21.
- "Ellen H. Clapsaddle 1865-1934". Emotions Greeting Cards. Retrieved 2010-04-21.
- Baby Janet. "The Art of Ellen Clapsaddle". petticoated.com. Retrieved 2010-04-21.
- U.S. Passport Applications, 1795–1925, Ancestry.com. Retrieved 2010-09-20.
- Ellen Clapsaddle at Find a Grave
- Ellen Clapsaddle Valentine Postcards at Bonza Sheila
- Ellen Clapsaddle Profile - The Artistry of Ellen Clapsaddle