Friedmans’ Christmas Cards

This blog was originally published on December 19, 2014.

William F. Friedman and his wife Elizebeth devoted their lives to developing and breaking codes for United States government agencies. The code work they were engaged in related to serious issues such as liquor smuggling and organized crime, national security, and war. One way the Friedmans found an outlet from the stress of their daily work was through developing codes for purely entertainment purposes.

As many people do this time of year, the Friedmans sent Christmas cards to family, friends, and colleagues. To give their Christmas cards a distinctive Friedman feel you may not be surprised to learn that their Christmas cards were written in code. The first of the Friedmans’ Christmas cards found in the Marshall Foundation archives is from 1928. The “telephotocryptogram” as the Friedmans affectionately called it consisted of a telegram with a table of scrambled letters and a grille that the recipient would hold over the table to reveal a secret message.

The following year the Friedmans devised a code based on a series of family photographs. The order in which each family member appeared in the photograph corresponded to a different letter, so users would have to determine the letter represented by each photograph to reveal the Christmas message. Over the years the coded messages of holiday greetings on the Friedman’s Christmas cards took a variety of forms including a line graph, musical notes, and numeric codes. If you are having trouble finding inspiration for your Christmas cards this year feel free to follow the Freidmans’ example and send your Christmas greetings in code.

The Friedmans’ Christmas cards reveal the remarkable ability that William and Elizebeth had for code work as well as their wonderful sense of humor. To learn more about the Friedmans and to see digitized photographs and books from their collection visit the Friedman Collection page on the Marshall Foundation website.

Happy holidays from the George C. Marshall Foundation!

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