The Christmas card is born–and all heck breaks loose

It’s hard to believe, but the fabled Christmas card was actually born in controversy in 1843 (photo below). People screamed that it condoned drinking and more. More on that in a moment.

But to understand the Christmas card, you have to go back a long way. People have been using “cards” to express their feelings and thoughts for centuries.

There were the early Egyptians, who used papyrus scrolls to express their greetings. Greeting cards are also associated with the ancient Chinese, and as early as 1400, the Germans were printing their New Year’s greetings.

The Christmas card didn’t come along until the 1840s. Amazingly, as late as 1800 there was little celebration around Christmas. According to Digital History, “Christmas was not centered around the family or children or giving presents. There were no Christmas trees with ornaments and lights; there were no Christmas cards; and there was no kissing beneath the mistletoe. Nor were there Christmas carols. Most amazingly of all, no Santa Claus or Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas…”

For decades, Christmas in many cities had been a battle ground between conservative forces going back to the Puritans who wanted to keep any celebrations toned down and others who used it as an excuse to get drunk and raise hell. There were movements led by evangelical Protestants calling for a “shorter, more refined, more family-centered celebration at the end of the year.”

All of this paved the way for the Christmas card. The first commercial Christmas cards were actually commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London, 1843, and featured an illustration by John Callcott Horsley.

Horsley created the picture on the card (a family hugging and raising their glasses in a toast). According to Wikipedia, the picture was controversial. In the center is a picture of a merry family party, including three generations, grandparents to grandchildren, drinking wine. The figures represented two of the acts of charity, “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked.” But some said it condoned drunkenness.

Indeed, initial reaction to the new Christmas crds was widely negative. Besides those who accused Horsley of encouraging intemperance and alcoholism, others said the cards were just a foolish extravagance. Truth is, many Protestant sects refused to condone the Christmas Card for many years.Still, the idea was shrewd—and soon caught on.

(BTW, this wasn’t Cole’s first such activity. He’d helped introduce the Penny Post three years earlier. A batch of 1000 cards was printed and sold for a shilling each…”

Initially, cards were generally not mailed or signed, but delivered by messenger with a calling card. This began to change with the penny post, introduced in England in 1840, which helped popularize Yuletide greetings by mail.
By the 1850s, cards were appearing on the European continent.

The first commercial Christmas cards was mailed out in the U.S in 1875., thanks to a German immigrant (Louis Prang) who opened a small lithographic shop near Boston. By the 1890s, he was churning out 5 million cards a year. It was the birth of what would be a a major industry.

The Christmas card has survived depressions, world wars, plagues and everything else man can throw at it—and it’s still growing.

Trends came and went. Early English cards favored 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. There were Victorian styles cards, religious and winter themes.

By last year, Americans were sending out nearly 2 billion cards a year (The second largest is Valentine’s Day, with approximately 192 million cards mailed)—and that was just the U.S. Billions more flow from around the world. Even in the Internet Age, people keep sending cards.

This blog will explore the life of the Christmas card, and all its beauty. We’ll look at the most intriguing cards, trends in cards, the psychology behind cards, and much more. We call it the Secret Life of the Christmas card because, in a sense, it has led an interesting life–and brought so much joy to so many people. By any account, it has been an interesting journey and tale. We’ll do our best to capture this as we go forward.

For more information on us, and to see how far the Christmas card has come, you can check out our Tada Greeting Card website.


One response to “The Christmas card is born–and all heck breaks loose

  1. Pingback: A brief look at religious greeting cards « Secret Life of the Greeting Card

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