Othmer Christmas Plates
CHF supporters may recognize Donald and Mildred Othmer as the founders of the Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History at CHF. But friends and family knew them as Don and Mid, and around the holidays looked forward to receiving an unusual Christmas card illustrating the Othmers’ latest world travels.
Donald Othmer was a highly regarded professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic and a chemical engineering consultant for numerous companies. After he married Mildred Topp in 1950, the couple frequently traveled to countries as far-flung as Japan, India, Israel, and Korea. During a 1960 visit to Japan, the Othmers decided to use a custom-made porcelain plate from a Taizan kiln for their annual holiday greeting to over 700 friends and family members. The tradition of the Othmer Christmas plate would continue for the next 28 years.
This holiday season we are pleased to share CHF’s collection of Othmer Christmas plates with you. Join us as we reveal a different plate and its story each day leading up to December 25, and visit our blog for an introduction to the Othmers and their unique tradition. You can also follow along on our Facebook page, Flickr stream and Twitter site.
On behalf of all of us here at CHF, cheers for your holidays and 2012!
Day 28 (Dec 25, 2011): 1987 "Spire"
This plate was designated “Spire” and depicts the Gothic spire of Trinity Church, a Lower Manhattan landmark. We show the design sketch for the actual missing which is missing from our collection. If you have this plate, please contact us!
“The single gold item is a front view of Trinity Church on Manhattan’s Broadway, directly opposite the upper end of Wall Street which is directly across from our house. Its Spire, when it was built (1846) was the tallest structure in New York City. Now it is surrounded (a square block of old yard and cemetery) by much of the taller towers of modern business and finance.”—DFO
Read the rest of Donald Othmer's description of this plate here.
Day 27 (Dec 24, 2011): 1986 "Torch"
This plate was designated as “Torch” and is the third and final depiction of the Statue of Liberty in this series.
“I try each year to write you in May of every year to tell you of our thinking—and every year I am more busy than the last—so do not do the necessary!... It is the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty. We did Miss Liberty (1978-1979) but we must do it this year also—as it is the biggest thing ever this year.”—DFO
Day 26 (Dec 23, 2011): 1985 "Star of Bethlehem"
This plate depicts the Star of Bethlehem shining over Manhattan and reminds the Othmers of the Evening Star that they see each evening from their window.
Day 25 (Dec 22, 2011): 1984 "Christmas Plate Hands"
This plate was designated as “Christmas Plate Hands” and makes use of Albrecht Durer’s drawing. The idea for this plate was “held over” from the previous year.
Day 24 (Dec 21, 2011): 1983 "Dove of Peace"
Although the original plan was to feature either a door or a pair of praying hands for the 1983-1984 plate, the final design depicted the Dove of Peace against the symbol of the United Nations while their holiday greeting contains a heartfelt wish for world peace.
Day 23 (Dec 20, 2011): 1982 "Brooklyn Bridge"
This plate depicts the famed Brooklyn Bridge which was visible from the Othmers’ back yard. The Othmers selected this design to celebrate the centennial of John A. Roebling’s engineering marvel.
“The big front pier is always in deep shadow and doesn’t show the masonry construction under the bridge. It is in black shadow which I don’t think would look well for this. However, the central masonry pillar would have to be continuously rising vertically to continue above the Bridge floor…. I believe it would be better to have less ‘white space’ above the bridge. In other words the whole painting of the bridge should be moved up by about ¼”.”—DFO
Day 22 (Dec 19, 2011): 1981 "Prometheus"
This plate was entitled “Prometheus” by Iwao Jiki Kogyo Co. “I suggest that the white glaze be thin and with as little ripple as possible so as not to detract from the beautiful relief of the figure….I don’t know how this glaze is applied so I can’t make suggestions; but I suppose it has to cover the whole surface, before color is applied in a subsequent operation. (Some glaze is necessary, many men use these on their desks as ash trays.)”—DFO
Day 21 (Dec. 18, 2011): 1980 “Camels”
This plate was entitled “Camels” by its creators, and depicts the three Magi or Wise Men en route to Bethlehem, guided by a shining golden star. “These Camels bearing the Wise Men may have been the Ancestors of those we saw in Iraq and in India.”—MIDON
Day 20 (Dec. 17, 2011): 1979 “Cardinal on a Winter Day”
This plate is a striking depiction of a cardinal against a backdrop of green foliage. “The Cardinal on a winter day brightens our garden and brings us joy which we share with our Cheers for Christmas and for 1980.”—MIDON
Day 19 (Dec. 16, 2011): 1978 “Liberty”
This plate is another depiction of the Statue of Liberty, but from a closer vantage point than that of the 1973–1974 plate. “Miss Liberty, our neighbor across the harbor, raises her torch to bring you our Cheers for Christmas and for 1979.”—MIDON
Day 18 (Dec. 15, 2011): 1977 “Candles”
This plate depicts a pair of lighted holiday candles against a Manhattan skyline. “From our Window to the World our Candles beam the Warmth of our Friendship to You.”—MIDON
Day 17 (Dec. 14, 2011): 1976 “U.S. Bicentennial”
This plate commemorates the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations—specifically the parade of “tall ships” from around the world. Othmer selected the U.S.S. “Eagle,” the training ship for the U.S. Coast Guard, as his model. “Please make the sails in a smooth rounded higher relief, to show that they are filled with and straining on their ropes.”—DFO
Day 16 (Dec. 13, 2011): 1975 “Snowflake”
This is another traditional design—a snowflake. “We think the beauty of the white glaze alone as on Snowflake was very nice.”—DFO
Day 15 (Dec. 12, 2011): 1974 “Wreath”
This plate depicts a colorful Christmas wreath displayed against the Manhattan skyline as seen from the Othmers’ windows.
Day 14 (Dec. 11, 2011): 1973 “Lady Liberty on the Harbor”
The plate depicts the New York City harbor and the Statue of Liberty, haloed by the sun. Don Othmer once wrote: “Many of our friends tell us that this plate was the finest and most interesting of the series.”
Day 13 (Dec. 10, 2011): 1972 “Seagulls in Manhattan”
This plate depicts seagulls in flight against a Manhattan background. Don Othmer wrote about his cards: “Personally, I have always felt that, since a large percentage of these went to people in the chemical industry in Japan and elsewhere, that it represented a dignified way to present the Iwao name to potential customers of chemical plane equipment…As you may remember, my first suggestion as to an annual holiday plate, to Mr. Iwao, was that Taizan make each year a special New Year’s greeting plate for you to sell in Japan.”
Day 12 (Dec. 9, 2011): 1971 “Deer”
This plate depicts a deer in a snowy landscape. The Othmers’ country home in Coudersport, PA is depicted in the background. This is the only depiction of “Othmerea” in the plate series, but it was used previously in a Christmas card. From this time onward, Asian motifs give way to purely American, and specially New York ones.
Day 11 (Dec. 8, 2011): 1970 “Flipper”
This plate depicts a fountain in the form of a carp that stood in the Othmer’s garden. From a memo dated April 30, 1970: "The fish is leaping from a sea of ivy in our garden; and he is a fountain with a stream of water coming from a nozzle in his mouth. The background is a vertical bamboo fence, which we put in several years ago and which cuts off much of the skyline of Manhattan Island. The fence is white-snowflake glaze. However, part of the skyline is visible, as you see. The skyline would be plain white represented in relief, as in previous plates, a slight relief for the buildings and maybe some windows showing, as your artist may think best. This is not an exact representation, of course, but it does indicate, to some extent, the view…. I haven’t chosen the words for the back, but it will include the idea of the Japanese tradition that the carp is a symbol of courage and strength, since he is willing to swim against the current of the stream.”--DFO
Day 10 (Dec. 7, 2011): 1969 “Mt. Fuji”
This plate depicts a Japanese landscape with Mt. Fuji prominently featured. From a memo dated April 30, 1970: “We would also hope that this next year you would be able to purchase beautiful postage stamps which would give many stamp collectors the pleasure of receiving the stamps, as well as the plates. It might be necessary to purchase these in a big post office at Fukuoka, or at Tokyo, and it would be nice to have some of the beautiful stamps for which your post office is famous. This would give additional pleasure to the recipients.”—DFO
Day 9 (Dec. 6, 2011): 1968 “Cranes”
This plate depicts two cranes with the city skyline in the background. “In Japanese Legend Cranes live 1000 years and carry good wishes and blessings.”—MIDON
Day 8 (Dec. 5, 2011): 1967 “Japanese Sword Guards”
This plate depicts a pair of Japanese sword guards. “The most precious dowry a bride could bring to a Samurai was the honored sword of her ancestors. The quest and recovery of some lost blade is the basis of many an old Japanese drama. His sword was part of the Samurai’s own personality; and people judged his character from that of his weapon.”—DFO
Day 7 (Dec. 4, 2011): 1966 “A Bridge of the East and the West”
Metallic accents adorn a Midon Christmas plate for the first time with the 1966 installment, designed from a personal perspective. “With this view at the entrance to our garden—a bridge of the East and the West—go our Cheers!” the verso inscription reads.
Day 6 (Dec. 3, 2011): 1965 “Chinese Mirror”
This plate depicts a Chinese mirror in the Othmer’s collection. Don Othmer wrote:
“The general idea of the four old Chinese characters as they have been interpreted to us some time, is a wish to the married couple to whom these windows were often given, that they be blessed with five sons, who will be brilliant and able to pass the Civil Service examination with honors."
Day 5 (Dec. 2, 2011): 1964 “New York World’s Fair”
This plate was designed to commemorate the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Don Othmer began experimenting with the form factor of his cards, writing to his manufacturers in Japan: “Is there any way of making the plates flat on the bottom? Many touch the table only at the center, and are 1/16” or more off at the edges. This comes in firing—but would a mold which was slightly hollow in the center come out flat when fired? I don’t know, but I leave it up to you.”
Day 4 (Dec. 1, 2011): 1963 “Roanji Garden in Brooklyn”
Don Othmer wrote a memo dated Aug. 2, 1963, to the card manufacturers in Japan regarding this design: “Since an exact duplicate of the Roanji Garden has been built in Brooklyn, alongside of the famous Japanese lake and mountain and tree garden, also in Brooklyn, and since it was opened this year, we decided that this would be a good time to use this for a picture, since it would not be appropriate another year.”
Day 3 (Nov. 30, 2011): 1962 “Stone Garden Lantern against Manhattan Skyline”
This plate depicts the stone lantern that stood in the Othmers’ garden with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. These plates were produced by the Iwao Taizan Kilns, a manufacturer of white chinaware begun almost 400 years ago by a man named Hachirobei. It is a division of the larger corporation, Iwao Jiki Kogyo K.K., which also manufactures mosaic tile and industrial ceramics.
Day 2 (Nov. 29, 2011): 1961 “Fir Branches and Bamboo”
In the Othmers’ 1961 offering we again see traditional Japanese motifs—this time, fir branches and bamboo—covered in a seasonal snowfall. The colors retain a similar palette to those of the 1960 plate. The card’s message reads, “The Pine says Merry Christmas, the Bamboo Happy New Year.”
Day 1 (Nov. 28, 2011): 1960 Othmer Christmas Plate
Inspired by a 1960 visit to Japan, Don and Mildred Othmer decided to start using a custom-made porcelain plate from a Taizan kiln for their annual holiday greeting. It was important for Don to personalize the plates with his handwriting. In a memo to the card manufacturers, dated Oct. 6, 1960, he wrote: “For many years we have used the handwritten greetings on our Christmas cards—always before printed on paper—and so I want your writing on the back of the plate to be exactly the same as my handwriting.”
Meet the Othmers
In 1988 the Othmers launched a challenge grant to establish CHF's Donald F. and Mildred Topp Othmer Library of Chemical History.
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The Story Behind the Cards
The Director of the CHF Museum gives a video introduction to the story behind the Othmer ceramic Christmas cards.
Watch video ›
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A Commemorative of Their Lives and Legacies
This book of essays, articles, and remembrances pays tribute to the Othmers, who left an indelible impression on those who knew them, and a magnificent charitable legacy.
Buy the Book ›
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