Browsing in Our Archives: Christmas at Ashland

By James J. Holmberg
Curator of Special Collections

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An early interior view of Ashland showing the staircase - the very one the "urchins" and adults descended on Christmas morning. All photos from The Filson CollectionLetters describing past holidays provide an important source for researchers about these special days in American culture. What were Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and other holidays like years ago? How were they celebrated?

In “browsing” through our collections, a number of letters, notes, cards, photos, and other items can be found describing these festive occasions. One such letter is in the Jacob-Johnson Family Papers and describes Christmas of 1856 at Ashland, the Clay family home in Lexington, Kentucky. 

For Christmas of 1856, Thomas Prather Jacob visited his sister Susan and her family in Lexington. Susan married James Brown Clay, son of the famous Henry Clay, in 1843. Following the Great Pacificator’s death in 1852, James purchased the family home. Thomas, Susan, and their other nine siblings were the children of the prominent and wealthy Louisvillian John J. Jacob. They apparently were a rather close knit clan; corresponding and visiting with one another regularly. For Christmas of 1856 there were three Jacob siblings at Ashland. Kate Jacob was living with her sister at that time. The letter’s recipient was their sister Lucy. She and brother Charles were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time attending school. Upon arriving back home in Louisville, Thomas wrote Lucy relating news of Christmas morning at Ashland and presents being sent to her and Charley.

Thomas P. Jacob to Lucy Jacob, December 31, 1856, describing Christmas at Ashland.Louisville
31st December 1856
My dear Lucy
. . . I left Sister Susan & Kate both well also all the children. You may be sure that Christmas morning was ushered in with all the noise that 6 or 7 little wild urchins could possibly make. Sister had arranged all the gifts for each of the children on the piano in the Sitting room. They had access to this room before we got down to breakfast but as no one of them knew which gifts were for him or her, their curiosity was rather Excited by the sight of the gifts than if they had only been admitted to be immediately presented with their respective presents. After breakfast Sister gave to each of them their gifts and I believe all were delighted.  In addition to the Christmas Gifts Mr. Clay had given to them awards or premiums for proficiency in the various branches of study that they had been engaged upon with Mr. Miller. A gold dollar to each one for each award. I believe they, that is Lucy, John & Harry received each 2 premiums & Jimmy only 1.1 Mr. Clay & Sister & also Kate seemed to be well pleased with the progress they had made with Mr. Miller. . . . Kate presented me with a very handsome present, a fine copy in 5 volumes of Spenser’s Poetical Works – quite a valuable addition to my library. I sent to you my mail from Lexington . . . a small box containing a pair of coral bracelets for you. I was not very careful in seeing that the box was well tied up & so that the string could not slip off. I hope however that you will receive the box and that the bracelets will be pleasing to you as a Christmas Gift from me. I had made Charley a Gift of some sleeve buttons according to his own request. I met Brother Richard2 on the cars as I went up to Lexington, he had been down to Louisville to dispatch a box to you & Charley and when I got to Lexington I found also that Sister Kate had likewise been mindful of you two. So that you see, although you are absent, warm hearts think of you & Charley in your distant sojourn at Cambridge. . . .Give my love to Charley and accept for yourself dear Lucy my fondest love.
Yr. Aff. Brother, Tho. P. Jacob

A winter view of Ashland, ca. 1900.1 The three boys mentioned were the Clays’ three oldest children: James, Jr., John, and Henry. Four more boys were apparently too young to be considered eligible for “premiums.” They were Thomas Jacob, Charles Donald (both named for two of Susan’s brothers), George, and Nathaniel. Susan was pregnant at the time with her eighth child, born in 1857 and named for their sister Lucy Jacob. Susan Jacob and Lucretia Hart would round out the ten children born to the Clays.

2 Richard Taylor Jacob (1825-1903) was sibling number five, between Susan (1823-1905) and Thomas (1827-1889). Kate (1835-1864) was sibling number nine, followed by Charles (1838-1898; a future mayor of Louisville), and Lucy (1840-1870). Richard lived at his estate Clifton on the Ohio River in Oldham County. During the Civil War he served as colonel of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry (Union) and lieutenant governor of Kentucky, 1863-1866.

Volume 5, Number 4

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