The History of Christmas Cards

The History of Christmas Cards

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The first Christmas card was borne out of lack of time and a few decades after it was printed, the industry of Christmas card printing bloomed.

Sir Henry Cole realized he did not have enough time to reply to his mail and in Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail. It was also the same time the Penny Post was introduced and this allowed senders to send a letter or card anywhere in the country by affixing a penny stamp to the mail which enticed many people to write and send letters.

Sir Cole approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, to sketch up something he had in his mind for the card design and had it printed for a thousand copies. Over the next few decades, the popularity of Christmas cards grew in both Great Britain and the U.S. to become a large industry and holiday tradition. By the 1860s, Christmas cards supplanted New Year’s and Valentine’s Day cards as the primary way to update acquaintances throughout the year.

A limited number of Christmas cards were imported from Europe to the U.S. in the late 1840s but were too expensive for most Americans. In the 1870s, German printer Louis Prang began mass-producing more affordable Christmas cards in his Roxbury, MA print shop.

The Christmas card market increased dramatically after 1883, when the U.S. adopted a uniform postal rate to anywhere in America, rather than charging higher rates for longer distances. Further, the improvement of printing techniques in the late nineteenth century reduced costs for printing, and affordable Christmas cards now appeared in tobacco shops and dime stores for the masses. The growth of Christmas cards popularized many of the iconic symbols associated with the holiday including churches, holly, winter landscapes, Santa Claus, and decorated Christmas trees.

In subsequent decades, demand for Christmas cards grew dramatically and Hallmark and other card companies began commissioning famous artists such as Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali to design Christmas cards. In 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy painted two designs for Hallmark Christmas cards. The most popular Christmas card, selling more than 34 million copies since 1977, is an image of three angels bowed in prayer with the halo on one slightly askew.

Christmas cards became a traditional way for millions of Americans to update their family and friends about their lives, especially in the Post-WWII Era population boom when families began living further apart. Cards, in turn, became more customized and personalized. In recent decades, digital cards have emerged and family updates on social media have reduced the need for many people to update their friends and family via Christmas cards. Still, over one billion physical Christmas cards are mailed annually in the U.S. alone.

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About the Author

Ari Siegel is the founder and CEO of HistoryByMail.com and
HistoricCartoons.com. After growing up hearing WWII stories from both of his
grandfathers, he studied history at the University of Michigan. While working
in Washington D.C. and giving tours of the U.S. Capitol building, he was
inspired to take some of the thousands of historic documents that belong to the
American people, and make them more accessible.