Monday, December 24, 2012

A merry Christmastide to you, Marguerite E. DeWitt

In December 1958 — when Charles de Gaulle was elected president of France, the John Birch Society was founded, Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" was shown in color on television for the first time, and the Colts beat the Giants in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" — a 59-year-old woman living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia University, put together her own Christmas postcard with the help of a camera and a typewriter.

Her name was Marguerite E. DeWitt. I believe she lived from 1899 to 1987.1

She was a photographer. She was a Christian. And she was alone that Christmas of 1958.

I don't know much about her beyond that. Or beyond the words and photographs she left. But we still have those, thanks to this postcard.

The front of her card features a black-and-white photograph of a snowy street scene, presumably taken from her apartment window. The caption, in her unique lettering, reads:

By M.E. DeWITT '58

Scratched onto the photo, in the bottom right corner, is a unique logo that incorporates her initials. That logo helped me to identify at least one other piece of her photography.

Here's a closer look at the wintry street scene:

Meanwhile, the back of the postcard has no stamp, postmark or mailing address. Perhaps Marguerite handed it to a friend. Perhaps she placed the postcard into an envelope and mailed it.

Perhaps it was never sent at all.

There is a typed note (with a few fixes and mis-strikes here and there) and then, upside down, a short cursive note, in pen, along the bottom.

The cursive note reads: "No '57 cards due to a shattered arm." Next to that note is the same logo that appears on the front of the card.

Here are those two logos, side by side:

Here is what the typed note on the back of the postcard states:
Alone on THE HILL Christmas '58
600 W. 116th St. Ap. 44, New York 27

Oh, what shall we do
  Throughout the long year?
And what shall we do on THE DAY?
Believe in BELIEF
-From hour to hour
No matter what doubters may say.
Believe in BELIEF
  --the innermost LAW
That can come to the heart of all.
It bravely shines through
  Darkest hours of man
And answers all sighs and each call

A blessed Christmastide
And a New Year of believing
  To you and yours
I found two other photographs by DeWitt online.

This first one is titled "Three Children in the Grass." It was taken around 1915 and is currently in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (though not currently on display). The same logo from the postcard appears on this photograph, in the lower-right corner:2

The second photograph bearing her name is an untitled image of a steeple. It was also created around 1915. It apparently sold for about $62 in a California auction earlier this year.3 I really love this photo.

Marguerite lived nearly another three decades after creating her "Alone on THE HILL Christmas '58" postcard. I hope they weren't all spent alone, and that she had happier Christmases in subsequent years.

And I'm glad for the small opportunity to remember her — and a small part of her life's work — here on Papergreat this Christmastide. That wouldn't be possible if this hand-made postcard hadn't survived the past 54 years.

1. I believe that this Sysoon page refers to the same Marguerite E. Dewitt I'm writing about today. So, if she was born in April 1899, she would have been 59 during Christmas 1958.
2. Yes, I am aware she would have been about 16 when she took this photo, if it's truly "circa 1915". I think that could have been possible.
3. One auction site states that it sold for $62. Another states $63. I wonder who purchased it. And if he or she is displaying it somewhere. And does the purchaser knows anything about Marguerite?


  1. This is one of the most beautiful Christmas tributes I've read this year, or in fact any year. Thank you for always caring about the little things, the postcards and the small gestures that other people would miss. I love you, husband!

  2. This is such a sweet post. Thank you for all of the cool stuff, the great exammples of graphic design, the head-scratchers, and for going the extra mile of researching the wonderful things you find.

    Joan and your daughter are very lucky. Have a fantabulous Christmas!