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
dont know what well do if it keeps on."
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 years
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 cards 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."
Prangs 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 Prangs; 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 wars end, Americas 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.