Past Treasure of the Month – December 2014
Cole and designed by John Callcott Horsley in 1843.
During the month of December, Rosenberg Library exhibited a collection of vintage Christmas cards which were sent or received by Galvestonians during the early 20th century. The cards were donated by Philip C. Tucker, Z. L. White, S. E. Morgan, and the Lindholm Family.
The World’s First Christmas Card
Sir Henry Cole is recognized as the creator of the modern-day Christmas card. In 1843, the Englishman hired artist John Callcott Horsley to design a special holiday card that he could distribute copies of to all of his friends. The card depicted scenes of almsgiving to the poor with an image of a family raising a toast at their dining table. The greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You” was printed in the center.
Surprisingly, early Christmas cards rarely showed seasonal or religious themes as they do today. Instead, historic designs often featured floral motifs. Images of animals and children at play were also popular. Over time, cards began to include traditional characters such as Santa Claus, elves, and snowmen, or familiar objects like Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, white doves, and the Star of Bethlehem became more common during later years.
Christmas Cards in America
In 1874, the concept of ready-made Christmas cards was introduced to the American public by Louis Prang, a Boston-based printer and lithographer. Using the color printing process which he invented, Prang’s company produced the first commercially printed holiday greeting cards made in America. By the early 1880s, Prang reportedly printed five million Christmas cards annually. Also during this time, Prang sponsored art competitions offering cash prizes for top card designs.
Eventually, less expensive cards imported from Germany flooded the market, causing Prang to focus on other publishing ventures. Elaborate, expensive Victorian-era Christmas cards were eventually replaced by cheaper imitations, and by the turn of the century, postcards became preferred over cards with envelopes.
However, the production of Christmas cards continued to be a profitable venture throughout the 20th century. Designs evolved with changing tastes and advancing print technology. During the First and Second World Wars, patriotic themes were featured on Christmas cards.
Christmas Greetings in the Modern World
The popularity of Christmas cards has waned in recent decades, due partly to advances in communication technology such as email and text messaging which allow for more frequent, convenient contact than hand-written cards. Many families also prefer to send out a more lengthy Christmas letter to relatives and friends that includes personal photos and information about their activities during the past year.
Even with this shift, there are still over one billion Christmas cards sent in the United States alone each year. While some are traditional print cards, e-cards through online retailers are also popular. Many businesses and corporations send Christmas cards to customers each year as a way to garner good will and foster brand recognition.
Famous Christmas Cards
The British royal family has issued an annual Christmas card since Queen Victoria’s reign. Similarly, each U.S. President has distributed an official White House Christmas card since the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. These cards typically depict a scene in the White House rendered by a prominent American artist.