For Christmas in 1924, friends and customers of the Great Northern Railway received an elegant little book about the first American clipper ship to serve the China trade. Although the book doesn’t say so, The Oriental and Captain Palmer was written by Grace Flandrau and was either the first or second piece (after Seven Sunsets) she wrote for the Great Northern. The booklet honors the designer of the Oriental and draws a parallel between his work and that of James J. Hill’s and implies a parallel between the ship and GN’s new Oriental Limited, which the railway had introduced that year.
I was intrigued by this book since I started doing research on Grace Flandrau’s work for GN’s historical expeditions, but the only copy I could find for sale was for more than I wanted to pay. When I visited the Minnesota History Center last August, I found several copies in their files of GN records, and (since scanners are not allowed) photographed them all. Because it is based on photos rather than scans, the PDF is not up to my usual standards but it is quite readable.
The GN files at the history center included three different versions of the booklet or, to be precise, the same booklet in three different covers. In Louis Hill’s personal files was a copy with an orange, stiff-backed cover. He also had one with a tan, paper cover. In GN’s own files was one with an elegant black, paper cover flecked with gold. The black and tan covers are shown above and below.
Most if not all of the copies that I found were accompanied by a red envelope that made it clear this was a Christmas card. Although I’ve listed the book at 28 pages, this includes four pages of cover and four pages of tissue paper with a spider web watermark that would be appropriate for a Hallowe’en card.
The first page of text includes the signatures of eight GN officers: Louis Hill (board chair), Ralph Budd (president), W.P. Kenny (VP traffic), C.O. Jenks (VP operations), E.T. Nichols (VP and assistant secretary), L.C. Gilman (VP, executive department), M.L. Countryman (VP & general counsel), and G.R. Martin (VP, executive department). Note that only Hill and Budd signed their first names, the other signing only their first initials.
Although GN’s files didn’t reveal the motivation behind this form of a Christmas card, it’s a safe bet that the idea was conceived by amateur historian Ralph Budd. Drawings in the book are signed Levon Fairchild West, who also did the sketches in Seven Sunsets.