Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic “White Christmas” begins:
The calendar advances relentlessly onward, creating ever more distance between the winters Berlin “used to know.” The trees still glisten, but the ringing of sleigh bells on snow-covered city streets is no more.
Nevertheless, those early winters are not lost. They live on in the illustrations of 19th century artists. They come alive in the colorful prose—almost yesterday’s photographs—used to describe early American snowstorms.
Five snippets of early news articles follow.
The February 15, 1820 edition of Newark’s Centinel of Freedom reported:
We have had this winter an unusual repetition of falls of snow; and for most of the time for a month past sleighing has been excellent. The greatest quantity however fell during the night of Thursday last, and was more like our old fashioned snows than any we recollect for years past.—Though somewhat drifted, the snow was from 12 to 18 inches on a level; and when our sidewalks were cleared, it was a rare occurrence in Newark to see banks of snow breast high to a man.
The May 10, 1825 issue of the Salem Gazette wrote of a late-spring snowfall in Worcester:
On May Day the peach, plum and cherry trees were in full bloom with us, and the apple and pear trees partially so. The next morning our fields were ‘clad with winter’s snowy vestment.’ In some places the bright green grass showing itself above the snow made a most singular appearance.
An account in the March 23, 1868 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer describing the January 1831 blizzard stated:
The fleecy mass reached the eaves of the old market house sheds, obliterating the fences from sight. On the open square running from Seventh to Eighth Streets, between Sansom and Walnut Streets, the drifts reaching the second story windows. On the eastern side of the street families were compelled to burrow from house to house to obtain fuel and provisions. Marketing and wood came in town on rudely constructed jumpers, bringing fabulous prices.
The February 5, 1845 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote the following description of a major snowstorm that had just taken place:
Talk not of the coyness of spring, for she is fairly beaten “out and out” by the antics of Winter, whose hoary locks have been tossed in every direction upon the wind during his frantic gambols. The old gentleman has, as the poets express it, “lingered so long on the lap of spring as to be regularly beside himself; and here, we have had the venerable joker, for the last two or three months, exhibiting such an odd mixture of serenity and sadness, clouds and clearness, sorrow and sunshine, deception and flirtation as would work discredit to a pouting miss of sixteen. To crown all, on this veritable fifth of February—after a series of weather which would reasonably warrant us in expecting him to keep a little in the background—our ancient enemy is down upon us with unmitigated severity. The eye is greeted with a vast expanse of snow, some two or three feet deep, and the commodity is still falling… We desire, now, that the “oldest inhabitant,” if he can be found, should be brought forward and interrogated in relation to the merits of this storm; for people of ordinary age can recollect nothing like the present times, at least in these “diggings.”
The October 18, 1850 edition of the Hartford Courant wrote of an early fall snowfall in the White Mountains:
The White Mountains have put on their winter dress, and yesterday they towered above the Western horizon like vast snow heaps, contrasting finely with the many-colored autumnal foliage of the woods in that direction.
Perhaps the next time it snows, as the sounds that typically reverberate day and night in the bustling Bronx become muffled, one will turn back the pages of the calendar to a past winter through one’s imagination. Perhaps amidst a freshly fallen blanket of snow, seemingly clinging to everything, one will be able to envision a lively scene from one of the “Olden Winters” that undoubtedly inspired Berlin’s timeless seasonal hit.
I wish all of you a very happy Holiday season. May the joy of Hanukkah and Christmas stay with you throughout the coming year.
Illustration: Top Left: “Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning,” Currier & Ives, c.1863; Top Right: “Winter Morning in the Country,” Currier & Ives, c.1873; “Bottom: Passing Everything on the Road,” Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, Illustration in the February 6, 1884 centerfold of Puck. All illustrations were selected from the Library of Congress and have no known restrictions on publication.