Christmas Cards—A Brief History
Christmas cards were partly inspired by Valentine's Day cards and New Year's cards, the oldest surviving of which was printed in 1466. Home-made cards were fashioned by children even during the reign of Queen Anne, but the popularized Christmas card as we know it wasn't invented until the mid 1800s.
A Replica of the
Egley Christmas Card
Who Created the First Christmas Card?
The First Egley Christmas Card
There is some debate over who was the "inventor" of the Christmas card. The oldest Christmas card created for general distribution probably was created by William Egley Jr.; a 16 year-old British youth. His 3 1/2-inch- by 5 1/2-inch, preserved in the British Museum, depicts four holiday scenes and a "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" greeting with blanks after the word "To" on the top and "From" at the bottom. Industrious kid! The date on his card is clearly 1842... or 1849. The last figure is obscure, so it's difficult to say who was first.
In the year 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Calcott Horsley to paint a card showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. A center panel displayed a happy family embracing one another, sipping wine and enjoying the festivities. (So much for good intentions. The card drew criticism because showing a child enjoying a sip of wine was considered "fostering the moral corruption of children.") "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You" was printed on that first Christmas card. Legend says Sir Henry Cole didn't send any Christmas cards the following year, but the custom became popular anyway.
The First Horsely Christmas Card
A Replica of the First Horsely Christmas Card
Others say the date of this story was in 1847. They agree that the first Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole who worked for the British Postal Service, and an artist he hired named John Horsley. Cole was too busy to write his own greetings, so he hired Horsley to design a card for him. One thousand of these cards were printed and could be mailed for a penny a piece.
The criticism it drew may have contributed to its popularity. By the Christmas season of 1847, a number of people were giving out Christmas cards of their own. Had it not been for the controversy over Horsley's card, many of these new card givers may never have considered it.
The "Fad" of the Christmas Card
The early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a fad that would soon pass. They did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers.
Three Factors that Contributed to the Success of the Christmas Card.
- U.S. postal changes spurred sales of Christmas cards. Until 1855, senders had the option of requiring the recipients to pay the postage on cards and letters, and most did. Also, except in a few of the larger cities, the recipient was required to go to the post office to pick up his or her mail. But in 1855, it became compulsory for the sender to pay the postage. In 1858, collection boxes began appearing in larger cities; therefore, the sender didn't have to go to the post office, and by 1890 most of the post offices had free city delivery. At the start of the 20th century, the post office began free rural delivery. All these items helped speed the growth in Christmas cards.
- The invention of the steam press in the early 1800s made it less expensive to have cards printed.
- The design and features of the Christmas cards. Holiday cards designed by Kate Greenaway, the Victorian children's writer and illustrator, and Frances Brundage and Ellen H. Clapsaddle, were favorites in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Most were elaborate, decorated with fringe, silk and satin. Some were shaped liked fans and crescents; others were cut into the shapes of bells, birds, candles and even plum puddings. Some folded like maps or fitted together as puzzles; other squealed or squeaked. Pop-up Cards reveled tiny mangers or skaters with flying scarves gliding around a mirrored pond.
Christmas Cards in the United States
For more than 30 years, Americans had to import greeting cards from England.
A Replica of a Louis Prang Christmas Card
The Louis Prang Christmas Card
In 1875, Louis Prang, a German immigrant to the U.S., opened a lithographic shop with $250 and published the first line of U.S. Christmas cards. His initial creations featured flowers and birds, unrelated to the Christmas scene. By 1881, Prang was producing more than five million Christmas cards each year. His Yuletide greetings began to feature snow scenes, fir trees, glowing fireplaces and children playing with toys. His painstaking craftsmanship and lithographic printing have made his cards a favorite of collectors today.
Prang received most of his recognition however from his Christmas card contests that he ran. Every year he would enlist of the help of well-known figures in the American art world to judge the entrants. Winners would receive cash prizes. He further involved the public by allowing them to vote for their favorite cards, as well. This "Public Prize" was conducted apart from the professional judges and the winners were also awarded cash prizes.
When the market was flooded with cheap Christmas cards in the 1890s, Prang abandoned his Christmas card business as a statement of disgust, and perhaps because his sales were dwindling.
Modern Christmas Cards
Holiday cards designed by Kate Greenaway, the Victorian children's writer and illustrator, and Frances Brundage and Ellen H. Clapsaddle, were favorites in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Most were elaborate , decorated with fringe, silk and satin. Some were shaped liked fans and crescents; others were cut into the shapes of bells, birds, candles and even plum puddings. Some folded like maps or fitted together as puzzles; other squealed or squeaked. Pop-up Cards reveled tiny mangers or skaters with flying scarves gliding around a mirrored pond.
Christmas Cards have changed since the days of Sir Henry and Louis Prang. They now sport comics, jokes and clever verses. But those that picture timeless and simple settings such as excited children around a Christmas tree, Nativity scenes, nature scenes and carolers singing in the snow are still in the highest demand today.
Today, over 2.6 billion Christmas cards are mailed annually (over $571 million dollars worth!). This amount is almost twice the volume of the $277 million dollars worth of Valentine cards mailed annually. With the popularity of digital cameras, computers, and the plethora of scrapbook suppliers, home-made Christmas cards are again becoming popular. Some simply mail a picture of their family and a short greeting, while others include a brief write-up, touching on events of the previous year. And, with so many computer users jumping online, electronic cards, or e-cards are also flooding the Internet.
What's NEW in Email Christmas Cards?
People love to send and receive Holiday Email cards from their friends and loved ones. Although email has been around for awhile, companies are finally offering attractive holiday email templates.