Public Domain Day advent calendar #24: The Night Before Christmas (recitation with music and drawings) by Hanna van Vollenhoven and Grace Drayton

Christmas Eve is a good time to revisit Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.  In the public domain since the mid-19th century, it’s been adapted many times, and I’ve already featured a chorale adaptation by Frances McCollin in a previous calendar entry.  But there’s no limit to the number or variety of adaptations people can make to works in the public domain.  And there’s another adaptation from 1923 that’s somewhat better-known, and worth a look.

In 1923, the Boston Music Company published “The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, by Hanna Van Vollenhoven”.  Van Vollenhoven, a Dutch woman who had immigrated to New York around the time of the first World War, was a fairly well-known pianist and composer at the time, with performances on the radio and articles and tour promotions in magazines like The Musical Monitor.  It’s not surprising, then, that she was billed prominently on the cover of the piano music she wrote to accompany a recitation of the classic Christmas poem, and that the copyright to her music was renewed in 1950.

But the edition featuring Van Vollenhoven’s music may now be better known for the contributions of its other creator, artist Grace Drayton.   Trained in Philadelphia, Drayton was an early cartoonist for the Hearst syndicate, sometimes in collaboration with her sister, Margaret Gebbie Hays.  She also illustrated books and stories in magazines like St. Nicholas, and created a popular line of “Dolly Dingle” paper dolls.

Her most lasting creations are the Campbell’s Soup Kids, who she designed in 1904 and who continue to appear in Campbell’s advertising and publicity items to this day.  The Campbell Kids cast has grown and changed somewhat in appearance since Drayton’s initial unsigned drawings were published, but they still have a notable resemblance to the originals. A 2017 article by Kate Kelly at America Comes Alive shows examples of Drayton’s drawings of the Campbell Kids and other characters.

The Boston Music Company’s 1923 “Night Before Christmas” featured a color illustration by Drayton on the cover, and additional drawings by Drayton made appearances through the book’s 16 pages.  The cover illustration shows a jolly man in a red suit with white fur lining, carrying a sack full of toys leaning over two children in bed.  All the figures have the sort of round faces and rosy cheeks that also appear on Dolly Dingle and the Campbell Kids– St. Nicholas himself looks like he could be an overgrown child.  Drayton’s illustrations were copyrighted and renewed as well, and both Drayton’s pictures and Van Vollenhoven’s music will join the public domain in the US eight days from now.

I haven’t to date featured other artwork in this advent calendar, largely because it’s often difficult to say with certainty whether a given piece of art created in 1923 is joining the US public domain in 2019, is already in the public domain, or will remain under copyright.  The copyright system in the US in the early 20th century was largely designed for widely copied work, with the time of publication being the start of that work’s copyright term, or its entry into the public domain if copyright was not then claimed as required.  But it’s usually not obvious when a one-of-a-kind work of art, like a Picasso painting or a Duchamp sculpture, was “published” for the purposes of US copyright law, or if its publication met requirements for claiming copyright (requirements that themselves have changed over time, particularly for non-US works).  It’s somewhat easier to tell for artworks designed for publication, such as Drayton’s book and magazine illustrations, which tended to published, registered, and renewed (or not) much like books and magazines were.  But most such works of art, if renewed at all, were renewed as part of the publications in which they appeared.  Very few works of art have their own renewed copyrights.  The renewal for Drayton’s illustrations for “The Night Before Christmas”, for instance, is one of only 114 renewals for “prints and pictorial illustrations” filed in 1950.

Because of that renewal, and the 1950 renewal for Van Vollenhoven’s music, I can be sure that their “Night Before Christmas” book will be among the new arrivals in the American public domain in eight days.  I hope that it will be a welcome gift in the coming new year.  And I hope that all those waiting for presents from St. Nicholas tonight get welcome gifts as well.


2019 update: Link to illustrated score of The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music at  Baylor University.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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