Archive for material culture

Special Invitation

I’ve been looking at postcards again.

Here’s one sent by Mrs. Gridley in 1912



and a lovely, delicate drawing of children listening to a Rally Day greeting over crystal radio headsets.



And then I found this invitation to a youth group outing with Peter Max-inspired fireworks.





A few traces of the Church’s imagination and practice that happened to catch my eye.


Super Bowl Sunday: Bible Cover edition


New Found Life Bible Cover










We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6:4


There are only certain places in this country where you can go to find a really good selection of Bible covers. I happened to be in one of those places a few years back and took these pictures.

Bible covers can be functional. The Bible I’ve used since fourth grade wouldn’t hold together without the plain black canvas cover that surrounds it. Other Bible covers make a statement–about faith or fashion. They may declare, “I am a Christian,” or they may demonstrate that scripture is so much of your identity that it’s been incorporated into your ensemble. They can disguise your Bible so no one will realize what you’re carrying. And then there are the covers that are designed to be conversation starters–because witnessing is easier and less intrusive if it begins after someone asks, “What is that?”

Of all the bits of Christian material culture out there for purchase, Bible covers are one you can usually count on to elicit feelings. The idea of carrying your Bible around with you so much that it needs a cover is foreign to many Christians. Even bringing your personal Bible to church (so you might take notes in it or follow along with the reading!) seems a little too fervent for some. And for others, the idea of having fun with the Good Book is profoundly uncomfortable. The danger of being tacky or disrespectful is just too great.


Bible covers purse style


Bible covers assorted


Whatever your feelings on this matter, you should know that the history of protective and decorative Bible covers goes back more than a thousand years. Medieval Bibles were handmade, not printed, so people went to great lengths to house these precious works in suitable coverings. I doubt that any of our current bookstore offerings will survive to 3016, but they might last 100 years, and I wonder what history will imagine they meant.

Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession Number: 17.190.134

Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 17.190.134



Working for our daily bread

Lord's Prayer postcard printed by P. Sander, NY. 1908

Lord’s Prayer postcard
printed by P. Sander, NY.


Today is a snow day, but before I get suited up for shoveling the white stuff, I’ll share a bit of Christian material culture that I picked up last week.

This postcard is one of a series printed in 1908 by Philip Sander. Postcard sets of The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments were popular during the early 20th century. Each card would depict a different petition or commandment so that a person could collect or send the entire set.

Such cards are still fairly common out in the world of ephemera collectors, and you can pick them up for not too much money if you’re interested. I’m fascinated by the way they reveal the values and assumptions of religious people in an earlier age. With one foot in the world of religion and the other in the world of commerce, these cards may not show the church’s official positions, but as images that were marketed and purchased, they can tell us a lot. A successful postcard has an easily understood, high-impact image. A viewer ought to be able to take it all in quickly and feel something that makes them want to share (that is, buy and send) the postcard. They’re are a lot like today’s social media in that respect.

I was drawn to this particular postcard because, instead of showing us people eating, this one presents two different ways to earn our daily bread. It’s more complicated than just “provide us food.” There’s the farmer harvesting wheat, and the businessman talking on the phone with factories that are likely intended to represent flour mills in the background. It’s a country life/city life juxtaposition that speaks to the urbanization of America which had been taking place since the 19th century; and it unites the two men by depicting the farm-to-mill chain of production.

Unlike the pictures of people saying grace at the table (which are often quite lovely), or the sentimental images of angels feeding destitute children, this Lord’s Prayer postcard clearly shows people working for their daily bread. “Give us our daily bread” becomes “Reward our daily labors with bread.” The card doesn’t tug at the heart strings, but it does convey the ideas that “work is noble” and “work is important.” It all feels very American and very Protestant.

There’s a lot to like about this card, though I can’t really call it art. The curls on the dividing line are a nice touch that give an impression of time, and I like all the detailed office supplies on the desk. And then there are the roses on the windowsill adding a touch of beauty to that skyline of factory smoke!


Embracing community

Phone book cover2012-02-23 adj


The world is full of a number of things, and too many of them, I fear, have found their way into my possession. Some of them cause me to wonder “Why did I buy this?” and “Why am I keeping this?” but in this great world of things there are also a very few others that I wish I had picked up and didn’t. The item above is one of the latter.

I found it on a shelf of “miscellaneous stuff” in the Goodwill store in a small community in Southwest Virginia. At the time, I only knew it was quirky, and I didn’t have a use for it, so I took a picture and left it behind. To my surprise, this curious object kept visiting my mind, and in the years since I snapped that picture, I’ve pondered its significance and charm. Now I think I finally understand what it means.

The treasure I found that day is a handmade, plastic-canvas phone book cover. As I recall, plastic canvas needlepoint was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early ’80s, though it doesn’t appear to have ever really gone away. I can’t date this cover with great specificity, but the plastic canvas, the redesign of the Bell logo in 1969, and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984 suggest a time between the mid-’70s and mid ’80s.

What struck me first about this piece was the juxtaposition of symbols–Jesus and Ma Bell side by side–the sacred and the secular. That’s unusual of course, but as I thought about it more, I also realized how much time and love went into creating this cover. Who would take such care and why?

When this cover was first created, phone books mattered. Back in the day, phone books described and connected communities–particularly small communities. We all had each others’ numbers–it was rare that one should be unlisted. Our phones were attached to the wall, and a telephone directory was always near by. We used them daily–white pages and yellow pages, looking up names, addresses, and phone numbers–the cheap paper becoming dog-eared and torn with heavy use. A phone book might actually wear out! and so a cover like this would protect and personalize year after year, as each new book was slipped inside to replace the old.

But even if we can understand why someone would labor to make a telephone book cover, why would they put a cross on the back? What does Jesus have to do with telephones? What were they thinking?

It was the needlepoint that gave me a clue. Plastic canvas, often used for making tissue box and even iPod cozies, is surely a descendant of the punched paper mottos loved by the Victorians. You’ve probably seen examples of perforated card-board work made possible by new printing technologies. At the turn of the century, framed samplers proclaiming “God Bless This House” and “Give us this Day our Daily Bread” were displayed in many parlors. Perhaps the creator of the needlepoint cover had seen such samplers too, and so need and materials and tradition came together one person’s imagination and a plastic canvas phone book cover was created. A variation, perhaps, on the Bible cover. Probably unique.


Bless this house


I wish I had rescued that homemade cover from the Goodwill. It’s really rather extraordinary if you think about it. Someone once cared about their community, and the book that kept them connected. They wanted to protect the book and probably their neighbors. Someone wanted to make a statement, and they wanted to do it artfully. And this thing is evidence of that desire. I hate to see such things pass, though I know they often must.

Jesus and Ma Bell, wrapping their arms around this small community. Blessed be the ties.

The Promise Box

Our Daily Bread Promise Box

Our Daily Bread
Promise Box


Return thanks. Say your prayers. Read your Bible everyday.

One of our great tasks as faithful people is to be always mindful of God and his promises. We teach them diligently to our children. We talk of them when we sit in our houses and walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise. We try to establish good spiritual habits, memorize prayers and scripture, learn a few hymns. We want faith to be as natural as breathing.

The Promise Box is one of the tools Christians have developed to aid spiritual growth. The idea is simple: a box filled with cards or slips of paper printed with Bible verses. Each day you draw a different card to read, mark, and inwardly digest. The purpose is serious, but the practice is enjoyable. It’s a bit like opening a fortune cookie or a birthday present: you never know exactly what you’ll get. As you reach for the card you wonder, “What message does God have for me today?”

The Promise Box that’s most familiar to me is a little plastic loaf of bread filled with different colored cards. The box usually has the words “Our Daily Bread” on it, though I have seen pictures of a “Bread of Life” box. The “bread” in the title is a New Testament reference, intended to remind us of Jesus and the Lord’s Prayer.

I remember seeing these loaves in people’s kitchens growing up. We didn’t have one, but to a child, a plastic bread loaf is a wonder to be remembered. The other day, for some unknown reason, I went hunting online, found one for sale (which I bought), and I also found an interesting variation that I’d never seen before. (I bought that one too.) They have become food for thought.


Honey in the Rock

Honey in the Rock
Gospel Text Line
Seymour, Indiana


My second Promise Box is a plastic rock. The phrase “Honey in the Rock” stamped in gold on the side comes from Psalm 81 and Deuteronomy 32–but I believe the sense of it comes from Psalm 119:

How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

and from Ezekiel 3:

“Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

Honey in the Rock has colored cards similar to the Daily Bread, but like the name it’s a bit less austere. The cards are printed with scripture verses on one side and what seem to be hymn lyrics on the other. I don’t recognize many of the hymn lyrics, and their poetry seems old-fashioned, so I suspect they were familiar to a previous generation. (Of course, it could be a reprint of old cards in a new box, the sort of thing that happens when one company buys out another.) My Honey in the Rock was made by the Gospel Text Line Company of Seymour, Indiana (about which I know almost nothing). I’m guessing it dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Now I had a loaf and a rock. My interest was piqued. I realized there was more to the Promise Box than bread alone, so I did what I always do: I went searching online, and I was able to trace the Promise Box as far back as the Victorian era. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more examples, but let me share what I’ve found so far.

In the 1940s, Zondervan put out a Daily Manna Promise Box. Once again the product name varies, but emphasizes our need for nourishment and God’s promise to supply our needs. Calling to mind Deutronomy 8:1-3 the Zondervan box also links our need to the word of God: “man shall not live by bread alone.” The Daily Manna Promise Box contains the familiar colored cards (which must have been designed to appeal to consumers), here printed with scripture and “choice poems.” The addition of poetry, like the hymns, creates more obviously devotional experience than the simple scripture verse of the Daily Bread. There’s a verse to memorize and a sort of poetic commentary for meditation. Directions for use are included.

Daily manna promise box 1940s Zondervan

Daily Manna Promise Box
Zondervan, 1940s

Daily manna scripture cards


Daily manna directions for use

“Directions for use: This box contains 200 Precious Promises with accompanying appropriate bits of verse. These cards may be read at every meal, during social gatherings, in study groups, etc. Use these cards to memorize the rich portions of God’s Word.”


Having made my way to the pre-plastic age, I kept up my online search. The oldest promise box I could find was created by Pickering and Inglis, a Glasgow-based firm, publishing largely for the non conformist church in Scotland with many Brethren publications. These lovely examples come from the early 1900s. They’re called “Golden Grain: Precious Promises Gleaned from the Word of God” and the name reminded me of Jean-François Millet’s Gleaners (1857).




The Golden Grain box was filled with tiny scrolls and came with an instruction card and a delicate pair of tweezers to remove the scrolls.

“Golden Grain Promise Box- A careful selection of Precious Promises from the Word of God for the comfort, cheer and guidance of His Own. Pick out one of the rolls, read and commit to memory the promise, then replace in box. Can be used at morning and evening worship, at any meal table or family gathering, in small Bible Class or Social Company, in Hospital or Infirmary, in private, or in many other ways.”

Golden Grain Precious Promises Pickering Inglis


Golden Grain Precious Promises sample


Golden Grain Promise Box with tongs


Golden Grain Promise box yellow red


So that’s I’ve learned about the history of the Promise Box, and now you know it too. But why, you may ask, did I lead you down this rabbit hole? Because I’m fascinated by the idea that a bit of Christian whimsy–almost Christian kitsch–has a serious history. An I think it’s worth asking, if a plastic loaf of bread filled with Bible verses is meaningful to someone, what does it mean?

Each of these objects is clearly a Promise Boxes, but they are not the same. “Be nourished by God’s Word” they all say, but some Promise Boxes allow for personal reflection stimulated by human words as well as scripture. Some are a bit silly. All are meant to be enjoyed, and all of them bring religious instruction and devotion into the home, and frequently to the kitchen and to the table where the family gathers.

Like an Advent calendar, the Promise Box is a motivator to mindfulness. Happily, it’s not a box of pills–“take one a day for good spiritual health”–it’s a box of promises, designed to comfort, cheer, and guide us. It has a game-like quality. And it’s a great idea that’s lasted over a hundred years.


Post script: I was musing over lunch about the multicolored cards, and thinking about how only recently had the palette changed to slightly more neon shades. Why had the colors remained so constant over many years? What did they mean? Then, with a characteristic flash of insight, my husband pointed out that the cards were a rainbow and so a reminder to us and to God of his great promise:


I am going to make a solemn promise to you and to everyone who will live after you. This includes the birds and the animals that came out of the boat. I promise every living creature that the earth and those living on it will never again be destroyed by a flood.

The rainbow that I have put in the sky will be my sign to you and to every living creature on earth. It will remind you that I will keep this promise forever. When I send clouds over the earth, and a rainbow appears in the sky, I will remember my promise to you and to all other living creatures. Never again will I let floodwaters destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the sky, I will always remember the promise that I have made to every living creature. The rainbow will be the sign of that solemn promise.

 Genesis 9