Christmas Cards

Americans will send over a billion Christmas cards this year. Even in this age of instantaneous communication, the physical Christmas card is still inseparable from our modern holiday celebration.

The Christmas card is an English invention. A man named Henry Cole is credited with creating the first commercially produced Christmas card in 1843. But more interesting are the social, economic, and technological factors that all came together at roughly the same time to enable the birth of the Christmas card. Hear all about it in this episode of Christmas Past.

Early Christmas cards were not much like the ones we know today. Many of them had seemingly nothing to do with Christmas.

image of a Louis Prang Christmas card
A Louis Prang Christmas card

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:08
Well, by now it’s already started happening somewhere in your home, maybe it’s on the mantel, the refrigerator taped around a doorway, or in some Pinterest inspired display somewhere. The Christmas cards are rolling in and rolling out to if you’re keeping on top of things, you can’t have Christmas without them. Whether they’re family photo cards, store bought greeting cards, or even those annual family newsletters, I have a feeling those are going to become like the ugly sweater of Christmas cards. They’re so horrible that one day they’re going to become cool again. But have you ever stopped to wonder how Christmas cards came to be the annual tradition they are? It’s a story of many historic and economic and technological developments all coming together around the same time. And just like it is with a lot of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today. This one’s relatively new. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

In America, we send over 1 billion Christmas cards every year, some estimates have at as high as 1.9 billion. Now I had to check a few sources before I was convinced because that number seems really high. There’s only 300 and 20 million people in America and not all of them even celebrate Christmas. Heck, not all of them are old enough to even buy Christmas cards in the first place. But that billion plus number was even reported by the US Census Bureau. The number has been on the decline in this age of E cards and social media. But still, that’s a lot of cards. The very practice of exchanging written greetings traces all the way back to ancient Egypt. But the Christmas card itself comes to us from England, around the 1800s Valentine’s were already very popular. These were ornate handmade pieces, and they were usually delivered in person.

Stephanie Boydel 2:02
they kind of come out to the idea of leaving your carte de visite. you would drop by to somebody’s house and you’d have a little card that would just have your name on it really your name and your title. So the first early cards that were basically personalized, cartes de visite.

Brian Earl 2:17
that Stephanie boydel, who is the curator at Manchester Metropolitan University special collections, they have a collection of over 100,000 greeting cards, including one of the few remaining originals of the first commercially produced Christmas card. We’ll get back to that in a minute. delivering them by hand was the custom but it was also true that sending them through the mail just wasn’t really a good option. The postal system back then was disjointed and unreliable, and the rate varied wildly. But all of that changed in 1840 when the UK introduced the uniform Penny post. This created the idea of a postage stamp, where for a standardized price, just a penny at the time, hence the name. Anyone could send a letter anywhere in the UK. This was huge. There was no internet back then, of course, no telephones, no automobiles, communicating across long distances just wasn’t part of normal life for most people. And then, just like that, it became cheap and reliable and efficient. This was also a time of rising education and literacy in Great Britain. literacy rates had been fairly flat since the mid 17th century. But they took off like a rocket during the 19th century. So more people could read and write, which meant more letters in the mail. And economic prosperity and consumerism were also on the rise. And just a couple of decades before a new printing technique known as lithography had made mass printing production cheaper and more efficient, and it was catching on. So all of the conditions were in place for someone to come up with the idea of mass producing greeting cards to be sent in Christmas time. And so in 1843, a man named Henry Cole did.

Stephanie Boydel 4:06
And he produced it initially as a personal card for sending out but then produced many more.

Brian Earl 4:12
Now this was almost inevitable for a man like Cole. You see, he was also one of the people behind the penny post. And he’s often credited with designing the very first postage stamp. So he commissioned an artist named john Horsley to design a greeting card. The Cole Horsley card as it’s sometimes known, sold for a shilling and he produced about 2000 of them. It was what we’d now call a postcard meaning it was printed on one side and it didn’t fold in half. The design shows a large Victorian family, each member raising a glass of wine and a toast to the recipient. And in front of them is a banner reading a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you. I’ll have a picture of this on my website Christmas pass In the early days, Christmas cards didn’t look very much like the ones we’re all used to today. The designs were mainly floral patterns or springtime scenes

Stephanie Boydel 5:09
and other cards which look more like fashion plates. And it’s all it’s got is a woman in a pleasant dress with a parasol, taking a stroll outside. A happy Christmas is the most Christmassy scene, and the ones that did show Christmas celebrations were sometimes pretty silly. There’s a whole series of cards, which show your traditional dinner coming back at you. A Christmas pudding for instance, with legs, chasing people with a knife coming after them to eat them or the turkey with a knife coming after people

Unknown Speaker 5:45
trying to capture them and eat them instead.

Brian Earl 5:48
But boy did they catch on. They became so popular that some editorials even complained that more important mail couldn’t be delivered because of all the Christmas cards overloading the postal system. postmasters even recommended mailing them early. It didn’t take long for Christmas cards to cross the Atlantic. In 1875, a printer named Louis Prang began selling Christmas cards in America. Just a few years later, his business was printing over 5 million cards a year. Prang would hire well known artists to create designs for his cards, which became part of their selling point. It’s even been said that through his Christmas cards, Louis Prang introduced fine art to the average person who in 1875 probably never spent much time in an art museum. But ultimately, poor Louis Prang became a victim of his own success. When cheap imitations flooded the market. It drove him out of business. Most Christmas cards were still postcards at this point. But then in 1914, an American named Joyce Hall saw the potential for greeting cards mailed in envelopes, and things ended up going very well for him and his company, Hallmark cards. Around this time, Air Mail was taking off, no pun intended, and demand was booming for cards to be sent to all of those soldiers serving in World War One. In fact, the First and Second World Wars were really instrumental in driving demand for Christmas cards, which eventually led to them being part of the normal Christmas season for all of us. Like I said before, we Americans love sending our greeting cards, but the numbers are on the decline. The latest figures I could find show that the average American household receives about 20 Christmas cards in a given year. Now that’s down almost 50% from only 30 years ago, it would be a real shame to see this tradition die out completely. And maybe you don’t think of sending Christmas cards as a tradition per se. But try to imagine Christmas without it. That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, how there are all these little moments in the Christmas season that we largely take for granted. But if we slow down just long enough to notice, there’s real moments of joy and reflection and Christmas spirit to be had. My mom used to tell me the story about her own Christmas when she was growing up. Every year her father would put up a Christmas tree and decorate it. And the tradition was when all of that was finished, she and her five siblings could put the finishing touches on the tree by decorating it with tinsel. And the tree would come out just like you’d imagine it would look if five children through all the tinsel they wanted at it. But there’s something about that memory that stuck with her through life, this simple little tradition of putting tinsel on a tree. That’s really a very special Christmas memory for her. And something similar is true for Anne Marie in Massachusetts. Let’s listen to her talk about how decorating the tree with her mom is a cherished Christmas memory.

Annmarie in Massachusetts 8:38
I always loved Christmas and in part because my mom loved Christmas. And she was the keeper of our family holidays and traditions. That was the mom role. My mom was somebody who was always fun loving and looking to connect. So she would get really excited. And by the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we always got our tree and put it up and my mom and I would get the house ready together. And we string all the lights and we had different decorations that we would hang on the wall including this one Christmas tree shape decoration that if you pull the string would play A Christmas Carol. And that was one of my favorites. And I loved getting a chance to put that up each year. And my dad who was not as into Christmas as my mom, he had brought it home for me and my mom when I was younger, because he knew we love to decorate.

Brian Earl 9:32
So how about you? What was Christmas like in your family when you were growing up? What’s it like in your family now? What are those traditions whether they’re small or large that make the holiday special for you? I want to hear about it. And I also want to share it right here on the show. So if you’d like to share a memory, all you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to Christmas pass try to keep it to about a minute and please be sure to say your name and where you’re from. If you don’t want to record your own voice, that’s okay. You can just email me something and maybe I’ll get a chance to read it myself on the show. Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian, Earl. I’d like to thank Stephanie boy Adele, and hey, Stephanie, since you’re the curator of a greeting card Museum, do people feel obligated to send you fancy or greeting cards?

Stephanie Boydel 10:21
Well, I hope so I think they. still get the same packet of 50. Just like anybody else,

Brian Earl 10:31
oh, well, maybe this year will be different. I’d also like to thank Anne Marie in Massachusetts. And of course, I’d like to thank you for listening. And I hope your Christmas season is going great so far, I want to hear about it. So come on by social media, I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, just search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places. And that’s where you’ll find me, this shows just a small part of the little community we have going. So come on by and check out some of the vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia, or just say hi, if you have any feedback on the show, or suggestions for future topics. I’m all ears. And I’d love to welcome you into our little community. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, take a moment to do it. Now. It takes just a second and it saves you several seconds in the long run. Because you won’t have to look for each new episode as it comes out. It’s delivered right to you. You can subscribe on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. And there’s more information about subscribing at Christmas Past And while you’re there, you can check out the show notes for this episode in all the previous episodes. For this one, I’ll have pictures of some of those old Christmas cards I described. Thanks very much again for listening and I hope to see you next time.