When Were Christmas Cards First Sent?
The first Christmas card was designed in England on 1st May 1843 by John Callcott Horsley for his friend Sir Henry Cole. A thousand copies of it were placed on sale at Felix Summerley’s Home Treasury office in London. The card was printed by lithography on stiff dark-brown card-board and measured 5 x3 inches. Underneath the picture of a family party on the front was the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. Inside were panels, framed in trellis work, showing examples of Christmas giving.
The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. Allegedly the image of the family drinking wine together proved controversial, but the idea was shrewd: Cole had helped introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each.
Louis Prang of Boston, Massachusetts, is regarded as the “Father of the American Christmas card”. He first produced Christmas cards in 1874. They were beautifully designed and much admired abroad. Early British cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favoring flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approach of spring. Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were popular, as were increasingly elaborate shapes, decorations and materials. At Christmas 1873, the lithograph firm Prang and Mayer began creating greeting cards for the popular market in Britain.
By the 1880s, Prang was producing over five million cards a year by using the chromolithography process of printmaking. However, the popularity of his cards led to cheap imitations that eventually drove him from the market. The advent of the postcard spelled the end for elaborate Victorian-style cards, but by the 1920s, cards with envelopes had returned. The extensive Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection from the Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 32,000 Victorian and Edwardian greeting cards, printed by the major publishers of the day including Britain’s first commercially produced Christmas card.
The production of Christmas cards was, throughout the 20th century, a profitable business for many stationery manufacturers, with the design of cards continually evolving with changing tastes and printing techniques. The now widely recognized brand Hallmark Cards was established in 1913 by Joyce Hall with the help of brother Rollie Hall to market their self-produced Christmas cards. The Hall brothers capitalized on a growing desire for more personalized greeting cards, and reached critical success when the outbreak of World War I increased demand for cards to send to soldiers.
The World Wars brought cards with patriotic themes. Idiosyncratic “studio cards” with cartoon illustrations and sometimes risque humor caught on in the 1950s. Nostalgic, sentimental, and religious images have continued in popularity, and, in the 21st century, reproductions of Victorian and Edwardian cards are easy to obtain. Modern Christmas cards can be bought individually but are also sold in packs of the same or varied designs.
In recent decades changes in technology may be responsible for the decline of the Christmas card. The estimated number of cards received by American households dropped from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. Email and telephones allow for more frequent contact and are easier for generations raised without handwritten letters – especially given the availability of websites offering free email Christmas cards. Despite the decline, 1.9 billion cards were sent in the U.S. in 2005 alone.
Some card manufacturers now provide E-cards. In the UK, Christmas cards account for almost half of the volume of greeting card sales, with over 668.9 million Christmas cards sold in the 2008 festive period. In mostly non-religious countries (e.g. Czech Republic), the cards are rather called New Year Cards, however they are sent before Christmas and the emphasis (design, texts) is mostly given to the New Year, omitting religious symbols.