There’s something wonderfully personal about opening the mailbox and seeing a stack of Christmas cards. The ones I get are generally from people I’ve known for years, some with new addresses, all with news and good wishes. The cards take me back to different times in my life. It’s magic to see pictures of kids who grew up with my kids. When did they all get so big? When did they start having kids of their own?
Having just moved into a new house, we went for two weeks without a mailbox. It was installed this past weekend, but I spent few days wondering if this year’s batch of cards would find me. I also started thinking about the tradition of sending holiday greetings. How did it get started? What were the first cards like?
The earliest commercial Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843. You’ve got to give the man credit for being a good businessman. He helped introduce the penny post. Christmas cards gave people something to mail. The first year he offered Christmas cards for sale, he sold more than 2,000 at a shilling a piece.
Early Christmas cards didn’t look like the cards we know today. Rather than pictures of Santa and reindeer, artists created images evocative of Spring. Flowers, birds and fairies were among the most popular designs. Aside from Cole’s venture, Christmas cards were typically elaborate and handmade. They were cut into shapes like bells, birds and candles, and decorated with satin, silk and fringe. Some of the most elaborate ones fit together like puzzles.
Handmade greeting cards were small works of art (kind of like scrapbooking today, I think), but changes in printing and mechanization brought a drastic change to Christmas cards. Cards changed from being personal and handmade to being something people purchased. With the advances in technology, just about anyone could afford to send a holiday greeting.
Cards showed up in America in 1845. They were imported from Europe and expensive. That changed thanks to Louis Prang. In 1856 he formed a lithograph company with a partner. They produced copies of famous paintings, then ventured into “album cards” depicting landscapes and patriotic scenes. These cards were intended to be collected. In 1874 Prang began selling Christmas cards. The trend caught on. By 1881, Prang’s company was producing 5 million cards a year and the designs changed to include fir trees, children and toys.
Prang’s work stood out because he used the latest multicolor printing methods. His cards, designed by such famous artists as Frederick S. Church and Winslow Homer, had as many as 20 colors on a single card. Neither did Prang skimp on content. The verses in his Christmas cards were penned by such poetic giants as Tennyson, Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant. He also knew how to market his product. He regularly held design contests to find new talent and gave prizes for essays extolling the virtues of Christmas cards.
Prang’s cards ranged in price from 50 cents to $15. Fifteen dollars was a small fortune then. (It’s still a lot to pay for a card!) Today Prang’s cards, identified by “L Prang and Co” on the lower margin, are highly collectible. He had another trademark, one that struck me as romantic. His wife’s name was rose. To honor her, he hid a rose somewhere on his cards.
It’s no wonder William Prang is sometimes known as the father of the American Christmas card. His cards dominated the market until 1890s when an influx of cheaper cards arrived from Germany. Rather than cut costs and quality to compete, Prang left the business.
Christmas cards are a long and enjoyable tradition. I admit to sending fewer than I used to (postage has gotten expensive!), but I still enjoy them. What about you? Do you like serious cards or funny cards? Traditional or modern? Santa on a sleigh or driving a Ferrari? After thinking about it, I’ve decided I like them all!
Merry Christmas a bit early!