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The Early History of Christmas Cards: Christmas Card Tradition Had Its Origin With an English Businessman

Published by Nanci Soileau

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Today, over 60 percent of all greeting cards are sold during the Holiday Season. Each year over 1.5 billion Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza cards, bought for $2.5 billion, are purchased and sent to families and friends in the United States alone. What is now a billion dollar industry can trace its roots back to England.

Early Christmas Messages

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, seasons greetings were sent between families and friends in the form of handwritten letters delivered by person or by mail. Among the more affluent, these were often written on expensive, decorative stationery. The letters might be brief messages of “best wishes” or more detailed accounts, similar in nature to the “vanity” letters that some people write today.

Henry Cole and the First Christmas Card

In 1843 the English businessman and patron of the arts, Henry Cole, commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to produce 1000 seasonal greeting cards that he could send to his friends and family members. Horsely’s creation was a hand-tinted triptych, a three paneled card.

The two side panels reminded the viewer to feed and clothe the poor, while the middle panel showed a family enjoying a festive holiday meal, including, to some people‘s horror, a little girl drinking wine. Beneath the family scene was the inscription “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.”

In the years following, the new Yuletide cards became popular among the wealthy and were even used by Queen Victoria. At a cost of a shilling apiece, the cards were initially too expensive for commoners, but, by the 1850s, mass production and cheaper postal rates made them affordable for a larger number of people. The new Christmas cards also became popular in Germany where printer shops started turning out their own.


The Earliest Christmas Card Themes

The first cards were rarely, if ever, religious in nature — no Mary, Joseph, or Christ Child, Star of Bethlehem, or Three Wise Men. Instead, they featured flowers, holly, winter landscapes, birds and animals. In the 1870s the noted English children’s book illustrator, Kate Greenaway, created a series of drawings of small children that were specifically meant for cards.

The First American Christmas Cards

In 1850 the New York lithograph firm of R. H. Pease produced a Christmas card that featured, among other items, an elf-like Santa Claus with sleigh and reindeer, ballroom dancers, gifts, and a young couple with three children, delighted with their presents. However, it is not known how many of these cards were actually produced and it is likely that they had a small market.

Instead, for the next 20 years, most Americans, at least those who could afford them, relied upon English and German imported cards to send as season greetings. This changed in the 1870s when a Prussian immigrant printer, Louis Prang, familiar with Germany’s advancements in lithography began producing art reproductions, album cards, and holiday cards.

Prang believed that his holiday cards, particularly those for Christmas, were to be a form of high art and this is reflected in his beautifully colored, finely detailed lithographs. The public loved them and, despite their high cost, eagerly bought them. Prang may also have been the first producer of cards with religious themes, as many of his efforts include angels.

The Gimcrack Fad

Prang’s cards sold well until the mid-1890s when cheap imitations produced by other card manufacturers, and, ironically, German competition forced him out of the Christmas card business. Another factor was the fad during the decade of the 1890s for the gimcrack.

Gimcracks were cheap, tacky, and useless gifts that were given to friends in lieu of Christmas cards. These “gifts” were usually novelty items, such as whistles, spoons, or grotesque figurines. Their popularity in the United States greatly affected the sale of holiday cards.

Cards at the Turn of the 20th Century

By 1900 Germany was the leader in sales of Christmas cards worldwide, due in part to clever innovations. German cardmakers were the first to produce folded cards with an illustration on the front and message inside; the first to include envelopes with the cards; and, the first to sell “novelty” cards. An example of the latter was the use of figures which could actually be moved by a tab.

German dominanation in the card industry ended with the start of World War I, when their international sales came to a virtual halt. They never recovered and In their place, companies, such as Hallmark Cards, founded in Kansas City in 1910, filled the void. Today, Hallmark is the leading worldwide seller, of not only Christmas cards, but greeting cards in general.

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