December 5, 2007 > Hayward History
Previously, people exchanged handwritten holiday greetings, first in person, then via post. By 1822, homemade Christmas cards had become the bane of the U.S. postal system. That year, the Superintendent of Mails in Washington, D.C., complained of the need to hire sixteen extra mailmen. Fearful of future bottlenecks, he petitioned Congress to limit the exchange of cards by post, concluding, "I don't know what we'll do if it keeps on."
Not only did it keep on, but with the marketing of attractive commercial cards, the postal burden worsened. The first commercial Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London, 1843, and featured an illustration by John Callcott Horsley. A respected illustrator of the day, Horsley was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy British businessman, who wanted a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a "merry Christmas."
Sir Henry Cole was a prominent innovator in the 1800s. He modernized the British postal system, managed construction of the Albert Hall, arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and oversaw the inauguration of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Most of all, Cole sought to "beautify life," and in his spare time ran an art shop on Bond Street, specializing in decorative objects for the home. In the summer of 1843, he commissioned Horsley to design an impressive card for that year's Christmas. Horsley produced a triptych. Each of the two side panels depicted a good deed - clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. The centerpiece featured a party of adults and children with plentiful food and drink (there was severe criticism from the British Temperance Movement).
The first Christmas card's inscription read: "merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you." "Merry" was then a spiritual word meaning "blessed," as in "merry old England." Of the original one thousand cards printed for Henry Cole, twelve exist today in private collections.
Early English 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. During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln requested a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, to illustrate Santa Christmas (Santa Claus) with the Union troops to bolster their spirits. Nast was the first to introduce a Father Christmas in the now-traditional red suit and big leather belt. The image of Santa Claus soon found its way into greeting cards.
Printed cards soon became the rage in England; then in Germany. But it required an additional thirty years for Americans to take to the idea. In 1875, Boston lithographer Louis Prang, a native of Germany, began publishing cards, and earned the title "father of the American Christmas card." Prang's high-quality cards were costly, and they initially featured not such images as the Madonna and Child, a decorated tree, or even Santa Claus, but colored floral arrangements of roses, daisies, gardenias, geraniums, and apple blossoms. Americans took to Christmas cards, but not to Prang's; he was forced out of business in 1890. It was cheap penny Christmas postcards imported from Germany that remained the vogue until World War 1. By war's end, America's modern greeting card industry had been born. The advent of the postcard spelled the end for elaborate Victorian-style cards, but by the 1920s, cards with envelopes had returned.
Cards continued to evolve throughout the 20th century with changing tastes and printing techniques. The World Wars brought cards with patriotic themes. Idiosyncratic "studio cards" with cartoon illustrations and sometimes risqu humor caught on in the 1950s. Nostalgic, sentimental, and religious images are once again popular, and reproductions of Victorian and Edwardian cards are easy to obtain. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House card. The cards usually depict White House scenes as rendered by prominent American artists. The number of recipients has snowballed over the decades, from just 2000 in 1961 to 1.4 million in 2005.
Modern Christmas cards can be bought individually but are usually sold in packs of the same or varied designs. A revival of interest in paper crafts, particularly scrapbooking, has raised the status of the homemade card and made available an array of tools for stamping, punching and cutting. Advances in digital photography and printing have provided a more technological way to personalize cards with photos, messages, or clip art.
Technology may also 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. Nonetheless, with 1.9 billion cards sent in the U.S. in 2005 alone, they are unlikely to disappear any time soon.