Historians credit the English with the invention and popularization of the Christmas card during the early years of the Victorian era (see also CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND). By the 1860s an entire industry had grown up around the design and production of Christmas cards in ENGLAND. This industry soon spread to other countries. Throughout the twentieth century ever-increasing numbers of people embraced the Christmas card, making the practice of sending greeting cards one of the CHRISTMAS SEASON’s most popular customs.
Researchers speculate that a number of pre-existing customs in-spired the creation of the first Christmas card. New Year’s cards, for example, date back to the early years of European printing. The oldest surviving New Year’s card was printed in 1466. Apparently, these cards never became very popular. Many surviving examples depict the boy JESUS in the company of flowers and birds. These cards began to disappear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, perhaps due to religious ideas popularized during the Reformation (see also PURITANS). In the late eighteenth century the development of a new printing process called lithography corresponded with an increase in the production of New Year’s cards.
Valentine cards probably exercised more influence on the look of the new Christmas cards than did New Year’s cards. Valentine cards were already popular in the early nineteenth century when the very first Christmas cards were printed. Some early producers of Christmas cards used designs very similar to those they printed on Valentine cards. Nowadays, these romantic Christmas card designs, brimming with leaves, flowers, and lace, seem unsuited to the Christmas season.
Even before the advent of the Christmas card, some people sent Christmas or New Year’s letters (see also CHILDREN’S LETTERS). As early as the 1730s English writer Alexander Pope (1688-1744) remarked upon the frequency with which the English sent seasonal greetings and good wishes to friends around Christmas time. Eventually the Christmas card replaced the Christmas or New Year’s letter. This change dismayed those who preferred a more substantial greeting than could be conveyed in the brief sentiment printed on the cards.
The First Christmas Card
The first Christmas card was designed by Englishman J. C. Horsley (1817-1903) in 1843. Three separate images adorn the front of the card. A large center drawing depicts a family gathered around a table, wine glasses in hand. One woman gives a small child a sip of wine, a detail which caused temperance advocates to object. A smaller side panel depicts a well-dressed woman draping a cloak around a poor woman and child. The other side panel depicts the distribution of food among the poor. The producer of this card printed about 1,000 copies and sold them for one shilling each.
Early English Christmas Cards
The new custom did not catch on right away. It took two decades for the Christmas card to establish itself as an annual institution in England. The advent of the penny post, begun in 1840, provided an inexpensive means of posting the cards, which undoubtedly permitted the custom of sending Christmas cards to spread. Before that time, not only had postal rates been higher, but also the post office charged the postage to the addressee rather than to the sender. The public responded enthusiastically to the new postal system. Between 1840 and 1845 the number of letters sent in Great Britain nearly doubled.
The first Christmas cards were modeled after Victorian visiting cards and so did not fold in any way. These small rectangles of pasteboard, about the size of an index card, were printed on one side only. The decorated side bore a lithographed or etched drawing, a greeting, and blank space for the names of both the sender and the addressee. By the 1870s manufacturers had started producing larger cards and folded cards. Some of the early folded cards were designed to open out like cupboard doors; others fell into accordion folds.
Trick cards also originated in the 1870s. Their clever designs delighted Victorians. Pulling a paper lever on the face of a card, for example, might add to or subtract something from the design or change it completely. Pop-up cards also tickled Victorian fancies. Some cleverly designed cards contained hidden images that appeared only if viewed from a certain angle or in a certain light.
Victorian Christmas Cards in Their Heyday
By the 1880s Victorian Christmas cards reflected the ornate taste of the age. Designers embellished the images printed on the cards with a variety of materials, including paper lace, real lace, shells, seaweed, dried grass, flowers, silk, velvet, chenille, tinsel, celluloid, crewel work, metal plates, and small sachets of scented powders. They frosted surfaces with powdered glass or aluminum. For a finishing touch they embossed or scalloped the edges of their cards, or even finished them with lace, cords, ribbons, or silk.
Some of the most common images found on Victorian Christmas cards are still familiar symbols of the holiday to us today. These include HOLLY, IVY, MISTLETOE, and, to a lesser extent, ROBINS, WRENS, winter landscapes, and Christmas feasts and parties. Other images that adorned their cards seem less central to the festival. For example, flowers, shrubs, and trees, often in great profusion, served as perhaps the most popular subjects portrayed on the Victorian Christmas card. Due to the abundance of flowers and leaves, these cards often appear to depict a summer, rather than a winter, scene. Many other cards carried images of children, often at play. Some of these children seem to be unnaturally angelic lads and lasses, others clearly pranksters. Animals, often portrayed carrying out human activities and sometimes wearing human clothing as well, provided another popular subject for the Victorian Christmas card.
Victorians also enjoyed Christmas cards that featured new inven-tions, such as the bicycle, the steamship, and the motorcar. Other Victorian Christmas card subjects strike modern viewers as some-what inappropriate images with which to represent Christmas. For example, portraits of beautiful girls and women appeared frequently on Victorian Christmas cards. Some of these women and girls appear partially nude or clad only in gauzy robes, startling modern sensibilities conditioned to approach the Christmas card as something devoid of sensuality.
The dead robin constitutes another curious Victorian preference in Christmas card decoration. During the 1880s many of the cards featuring robins depicted a dead bird lying in the snow. Perhaps the Victorian fondness for images and stories that evoked pity and other tender emotions can explain this rather bizarre motif.
Early American Christmas Cards
Although the first American Christmas card dates back to the 1850s, the American Christmas card industry did not take off until the 1870s. Historians credit a German immigrant named Louis Prang with bringing this industry to full flower. In 1875 his print shop introduced a line of visiting cards that included a Christmas greeting. An appreciative public snapped up his entire stock. Prang expanded his line of Christmas cards in the years that followed. At first his designs resembled those of the early Victorian cards from England. Embellished with flowers, leaves, butterflies and birds, the printed images evoked springtime rather than illustrating the Christmas sentiments that accompanied them. Soon, however, Prang’s workshop began to turn out cards decorated with recognizable CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS, such as holly, ivy, and POINSETTIAS. As these designs became more complex, the cards grew in size, eventually measuring about seven by ten inches. The American public loved Prang’s novelties. Many foreign buyers also admired and collected Prang’s cards.
Several factors contributed to Prang’s extraordinary success. A printer by trade, Prang combined expert printing skills, innovative lithography techniques, and clever marketing ploys to catch the public’s attention. But Prang was more than a savvy salesman. He passionately believed that mass-produced images could introduce fine art to those who would never otherwise be exposed to it. Prang’s studio developed a reputation for high artistic standards.
In 1880 he instituted a yearly competition for the best Christmas card design. Prang put his money where his mouth was. He awarded $1,000 to the first-place winner and $500 to the second-place winner. He also gave $300 and $200 prizes. Prang called on well-known figures in the American art world to serve as judges, including stained-glass artist Louis C. Tiffany (1848-1933), painter Samuel Colman (1832-1920), and architect Richard M. Hunt (1827-1895). Prang also let the public vote on which designs they preferred, and winners of the “Public Prizes” received the same hefty cash awards as those contestants whose work was selected by the panel of artists. Although Prang’s competition lasted only a few years, during its day it was considered one of the highlights of the New York art season. Prang’s dissatisfaction with the quality of the works presented at his competitions caused him to switch tactics after a few years and commission well-known artists to submit designs.
Unlike his competitors in Victorian England, Prang rejected trick cards and scorned fancy embellishments of lace and other materials as vulgar. During the 1870s and 1880s Christmas cards printed in continental Europe began to infiltrate British and American markets. Prang left the Christmas card business in the 1890s, when his sales figures began to falter.
In spite of his enthusiasm for popularizing refined art, Prang’s ex-pensive Christmas cards circulated primarily among the well-to-do. During the 1890s and 1900s the majority of American Christmas GIFT givers exchanged flimsy knickknacks with their friends. By the second decade of the twentieth century, though, Americans turned towards cards as a tasteful and inexpensive alternative for the useless trinkets everyone gave and, apparently, no one wanted. The new, inexpensive Christmas cards quickly grew in popularity, especially during World War I.
Today, American greeting card manufacturers sell more cards for Christmas than any other holiday. In 2001 the nation’s Greeting Card Association projected sales of 2 billion Christmas cards. These cards account for just over 60 percent of the industry’s total sales. Indeed, it has been estimated that over 75 percent of all Americans send greeting cards at Christmas time.