HALLMARK, Japanese style, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, meant ornately embroidered pieces of cloth called fukusa, to be draped over gifts. As with today's greeting cards, there were fukusa for every occasion.
The New Year brought universal celebration -- and the fukusa took its place squarely atop a gift on a lacquered tray. Used by the wealthy during Japan's Edo period, fukusa were often commissioned works of art. This no doubt explains the exquisite composition and deft needlework of the 35 gift-presentation cloths now on display at the Textile Museum.
With gold embroidery couched against a background of red silk, one elegant fukusa is swimming with sea creatures that bring good wishes. Prominent among the scions of the deep is the lobster, the New Year's symbol for long life -- when a man's back is bent like that of the lobster.
One fukusa tells of the Ship of Good Fortune that sails into port on the third day of the New Year. And another embroidered cloth lays out the ship's symbolic cargo of wishes: for prosperity, a golden mallet; for happiness, a jewel to ward off evil; for security, a raincoat to make the wearer invisible.
While we see holly trees on our seasonal cards, Japanese fukusa would display the "three friends of the cold": pine, bamboo and plum blossom, which blooms in late winter. These symbols, too, carry New Year's wishes for long life and happiness.
Gifts were given to celebrate autumn leaf festivals and cherry blossom festivals as well as the New Year. But, like a recycled card, the fukusa covering the gift was traditionally returned to the owner. However, the receiver got to keep the fukusa if it were draped over a wedding gift or a boy's 13th- birthday present; in either case, one was likely to find a butterfly, the symbol of sexual awakening, embroidered into the cloth.
A 77th-birthday fukusa, showing two old men laughing at another who absent-mindedly carries a fishing pole, shows there's nothing new about birthday card jokes about aging. The elders' age lines are masterfully sculpted from cloth.
There is even a Japanese Snoopy here, from long before such dogs befriended card stores. Frolicking on a fukusa that relates to childbirth are "Three Puppies Playing in the Snow." Giving birth was a snap for dogs, it was thought. So this fukusa accompanied either a gift for a mother who'd just given birth, or a gift for an expectant mother who'd just wrapped a pregnancy belt around herself, in the fifth month, on "The Day of the Dog."
The collection is on loan from Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, California.
FUKUSA -- At the Textile Museum through March 23.