Many of the characters in Isabella’s books looked forward to spring, when days got longer and temperatures warmed. They planned their days around being outdoors as much as possible, taking their meals outside and even taking long “tramps” through fields and parks.
When the sun went down, they remained outdoors, and lit their lawns and gardens with “oriental lanterns.”
Asian goods began to make their way into American homes as far back as the Civil War, but only in relatively exclusive areas, such as Boston and New York.
But in the 1880s, more common Japanese goods, such as paper parasols, fans, and lanterns became readily available in American markets.
One import firm, Vantine’s, offered a fairyland of Japanese items in their New York showroom.
You could see paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling on every floor of A.A. Vantine’s multi-story establishment. It wasn’t long before Vantine’s was shipping paper lanterns to stores all over the eastern states.
That’s about the time that Isabella began mentioning paper lanterns in her books.
In Making Fate (published in 1895) Marjorie Edmonds visited the Schuyler Farm and spent a lovely evening with friends:
She was out with many others on the lawn, which was brilliantly and fantastically lighted with many Chinese lanterns. It formed a place of special attraction on this lovely May evening, which was almost as warm as an evening in midsummer.
In The Browns at Mount Hermon (1908), several characters where concerned about a group of boys who planned to sneak off into the countryside to light a bonfire and spend the night gambling and smoking. Then, John Brown offered this suggestion:
What if we could give up this evening to pure fun? Have a gathering on the Zayante lawn, which is far more attractive than the redwood grove across the way; decorate the trees and the porches and all other available places with Chinese lanterns, plan for the finest bonfire that our splendid brush heaps suggest, and serve unlimited sandwiches, cake, coffee, and anything else that could be gathered in haste, and is calculated to tempt the appetite of the average boy. Then we could send a deputation to meet the train and kidnap the crowd as our honored guests, meeting their spirit of frolic and good time at least half-way.
One of Isabella’s most charming descriptions of paper lanterns was in The Hall in the Grove (1882), when Mr. Masters escorted Caroline Raynor and the Fentons to the opening assembly at Chautauqua:
On they hurried, striking at last into Simpson Avenue. Caroline came to a sudden halt, and gave an exclamation of delight. Away down the avenue as far as her eye could reach, on either side was one blaze of light; illuminated mottoes, flags, Chinese lanterns, flowers, ribbons—anything that could lend a glow of color to the bright scene had been displayed, and the whole effect was such as she will remember all her life.
Paper lanterns became so popular, they were regularly incorporated into greeting card design like this one:
And in illustrated calendars:
When you read Isabella’s books, you can tell she enjoyed the beauty of a light-filled summer night, and her descriptions of paper lanterns still have the power to warm our imaginations.