Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Learn all about the history of Christmas cards and why they are still sent today. Sending Christmas cards is a tradition that you can start anytime!
When I was younger, I’d sit complacently for hours, sifting through the piles of Christmas cards we’d receive through the mail. Smiling faces of people I oftentimes didn’t even know detailing their lives over the past year; reflecting and offering well wishes for the coming season.
I got to inadvertently watch people grow up, discover themselves, and interact with the world around them. The cards were plastered across the wall in our dining room, pictures from places I dreamed of visiting and of people I missed filling the room with a sort of essence that only existed around the holidays.
This past year, I asked my mom why we still sent cards. I mean, she posts often enough on social media, detailing our lives in sometimes TOO DESCRIPTIVE detail to a bunch of people we’d like to believe care about the tacos we ate for dinner. The cards, I deemed, were unnecessary. A waste of paper and stamps.
And while both sides of the argument are compelling, in the age before ill-timed Facebook updates and “If you don’t like this within two minutes you’re cursed for eternity” spam posts, Christmas cards were not only a fun way to sum up your year- they also filled your loved ones in on everything they missed.
Origins of the Christmas Card
Before Christmas cards, New Year’s cards were sent out in the 15th century. When they started off as New Year’s cards, they never gained much popularity.
Many New Year’s cards depicted Jesus laying in patches of flowers. New Year’s cards then vanished in the 15th to the 16th century due to the Reformation.
After the Reformation, lithography was invented by a German author and actor, Alois Senefelder, in 1796. Lithography is from a stone or metal with a smooth surface and is used as a cheap and quick way to print cards and letters.
When the method of lithography was invented, New Year’s cards began to gain popularity like never before. Later, Valentine’s cards became a popular way of communicating during the holidays.
Valentine cards became popular in the 19th century, the same time when Christmas cards started production. Christmas cards had similar designs to Valentine’s cards.
Now, Christmas cards have adopted their own designs. When Christmas cards became popular, they replaced New Year’s cards.
In 1840, penny post helped people send Christmas cards in an inexpensive way. The public loved the new system due to its cheaper ways.
Between 1840 & 1845 the number of letters sent in Great Britain nearly doubled.
Types of Old Christmas Cards
The first Christmas cards were created like Victorian greeting cards and didn’t fold. They were small rectangles of pasteboard and were only printed on one side.
By the 1870s, Christmas cards became larger and were able to be folded. Some of the early folded cards were made to be opened like cupboards, others like accordions.
Trick cards were also made in the 1870s. The Victorians fancied the trick cards when they were invented.
Victorians also enjoyed the pop-up cards. Other cards had hidden images that could only be seen if looked at from a specific angle.
By the 1880s, Victorian Christmas cards showed their ornate taste of the age.
Later, designers began to put many different materials on their Christmas cards. Some of these materials included paper lace, shells, seaweed, silk, tinsel, metal, etc.
Designers also frosted the surfaces with different kinds of powder. Designers put finishing touches on the cards by embossing the edges of cards.
Most images put on old Victorian cards are still popular today. They depicted images of wreaths, holly, mistletoe, Christmas feasts, and many other Christmas customs.
Non-Christmas things like flowers or shrubs were also popular pictures on Christmas cards. These images seemed to depict the summer season instead of winter.
Other Christmas cards had images of children playing. Also, Victorian cards had animals as their subject. Their most used animal was an image of a robin.
Cards also had designs of newer inventions at the time such as bicycles or motorcars. Most of these designs were used in the 1880s.
The First Christmas Card
1843 A man named Henry Cole supported the new “penny post” system. Cole was a part of Victorian England.
Everyone was sending Henry Cole greeting cards because he was so popular- which, can’t relate, ouch- so he needed a quick way to respond. Cole asked his friend, J.C. Horsley, to design an image Cole thought of.
The card was 5.125 × 3.25 inches. It read “TO:__________-” at the top of the card to write the recipients name.
It also said, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” The card contained 3 images on the front.
The middle picture depicted a family surrounding a table drinking wine. One of the women gave a child a small sip of wine.
The next image shows a woman humbly putting a cloak over a woman and her child in need. The other picture depicts people giving food and spreading joy to the poor.
So, basically, the Christmas card was concocted as a lazy way of getting people off a rich guy’s back. Sounds about right.
Within a few years, Victorians started to create their own Christmas cards and send them throughout England. Another few years later, Christmas cards were established as a national institution in England.
The history of Christmas cards in America began in the 1850s. American Christmas card industries laid low for a while but blew up in the 1870s.
A German immigrant, Louis Prang, was responsible for the eruption of American Christmas card industries according to the beliefs of many historians.
In 1875 Prang’s company featured greeting cards, including Christmas greeting cards. When the public found out about his company, they immediately loved it and boosted his stock.
His company quickly spread throughout the region due to the public’s love for Christmas cards. Prang’s first designs compared to those of old Victorian greeting cards.
Just as old Victorian cards, flowers and birds were shown, resembling more summertime than wintertime. The Americans continued to support his business and it eventually spread into foreign countries.
Later, his cards began to depict more Christmas customs than summertime pictures, like mistletoe and holly.
Prang used his great printing skills and useful marketing techniques to grow his company. Prang believed that the images could make fine art to people who would never be able to see it.
In 1880 Prang started a yearly competition for the best Christmas card designs. He gave cash prizes to the top few placed card creators.
The competition only lasted for a few years but was a widely recognized event during the New York art season.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Christmas cards made in Europe started to overtake American and British markets.
Prang finally left the Christmas card business when his sales began to plummet in the 1890s.
The Fast Rise of Christmas Cards in America
In the 1890s and 1900s, Americans began to give each other small toys in the holiday season. Later, Americans began to exchange Christmas cards instead.
The first white house Christmas card was made in 1953 by President Eisenhower. In 1962, the first Christmas postage stamp was in the United States.
Christmas cards started to gain a lot of popularity in America during World War 1. Now, the American card company’s sell more cards during Christmas time than any other time of the year.
The USPS and military even started a Christmas in July Christmas card campaign to make sure our servicemen received cards in time for the holidays.
Over 75% of Americans give out Christmas cards during the Christmas season. In the U.S., over 1.5 billion Christmas cards are sent each year.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, postal services give out over 15.8 billion letters, cards, and packages. Americans spend over $2,000,000,000 on Christmas cards every year.
There are over 3,000 greeting card publishers in America. Also, over 500 million e-cards are sent each year.
Humans thrive off of interconnection. Our lives are vast, complex, often inexplicable entities, and we like to share that. We want to feel a little less alone in a world that can seem both too big and way too small.
So, when I get the letter my grandparents send out every year, or blink in shock at how old one of the kids looks, or watch people get married, grieve, prosper, stagnate, live, I suppose I can confess it’s not as unimportant as I thought it was.
Because sometimes, we don’t want people to look at us.
We want to be seen.