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Who sent the first
Christmas card?

 

The Legend of the Candy Cane Book Cover
 
CHRISTMAS CARDS
A relatively recent phenomenon, the sending of commercially printed Christmas cards originated in London in 1843. Previously, people had 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 Christmas card designed for sale was by London artist John Calcott 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 he 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.

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.

Today more than two billion Christmas cards are exchanged annually, just within the United States. Christmas is the number one card-selling holiday of the year.

TO LEARN MORE

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
by Charles Panati / Paperback - 480 pages Reissue edition (September 1989) / HarperCollins
Discover the fascinating stories behind the origins of over 500 everyday items, expressions and customs.
The Legend of the Candy Cane
by Lori Walburg, James Bernardin / Hardcover - 32 pages (1997) / Zondervan Publishing House
For those who cringe at the creeping materialism surrounding Christmas, a pious story about the origins of the candy cane is definitely a change of pace. A stranger arrives in town one dreary November and begins hammering and sawing away at his newly rented storefront. Lucy and Mr. Sonneman set out on a quest to share this story with everyone in town. Their message (and their gift of the peppermint red-and-white sticks) brings the whole town together in a joyful celebration of Christmas (and candy).

Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised February 28th, 2002
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