Prayer Cards from Days of Yore (if ‘Yore’ is about a hundred or so years ago!)
Ok, a bit melodramatic with the title, I’ll admit, but these are pretty cool. Those of us who grew up with this devotional technology have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes a proper prayer card: they’re good card stock, about the size of a credit card, or maybe a little larger (mine all run 2 ½ x 4”), and they have a color image of one’s Deity; most of all though, they’re colorful and vibrant. That wasn’t, however, always the case.
I have a small collection of old prayer cards. By old, I mean early nineteenth century onward. I don’t have many, maybe half a dozen, but I’m fascinated by paper ephemera, the end result of a semester of paleography (at which I am utterly hopeless, no matter how intriguing I find the subject). I have bits of ballet ephemera, some old legal documents from late eighteenth century France (written in exquisite hand), two medieval manuscript pages that I picked up for cheap at antique markets, and the prayer cards. Basically, I have a lot of neat but random shit all over my house lol.
One thing I noticed when I acquired the older prayer cards, the ones printed in the mid 1800s, is that they don’t look at all like what we’d consider a proper prayer card today. First of all, they usually didn’t incorporate much (if any) color – like this Dutch card from 1891.
(From my personal collection)
Also, they were fragile. Part of this may have been the design: instead of color, many of them were cut in lace-like patterns. They’re lovely, but very delicate. I’m not quite sure how they would have been carried! I can’t imagine, for instance, slipping this one into my wallet without seeing it utterly destroyed.
19th century French prayer card made of foil (from my collection).
Or this one:
19th century French “lace” prayer card (from my collection). I have this resting on a piece of cut cardboard so you can really see the lace design well in the photo.
I have no idea how these would ever have been carried. Perhaps they were tucked in prayer books to aid in meditation, perhaps they were placed on shrines. I have no idea though it’s something I may research when I have the time. I’m also not sure when the style changed. By the 1950s, you start seeing more colorful images thanks to advances in printing and lithography, often adorned with a lot of faux gold leaf. The paper still tends to be flimsier than what we’d be comfortable using today, but they look more like the contemporary idea of prayer cards.
Also, please note, I’m only talking about Catholic prayer cards here. I have no samples of Hindu prayer cards from the nineteenth century, only this one below made about twenty years ago. It’s rather keenly made, however, in that it opens like a little book, with a prayer on one leaf, and an image –white Tara—on the other.
(from my personal collection).
Anyway, I thought it would be rather interesting to show an example of how prayer cards have evolved. This is the same technology we use today but the form is so different. It will be interesting to see how our prayer cards and devotional images evolve over the next hundred years! In the meantime, if you have any unusual prayer cards, please feel free to post in the comments. I’d love to see them.