victorian christmas card.jpg

christmas cards

Sir Henry Cole engaged artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene.  The illustration showed a group of people around a dinner table and a Christmas message.  Cole had 1000 printed for his own use and for sale.   At one shilling a piece (about $20 today), these flat cards were exceptionally expensive.  However the sentiment, which combined the idea of Victorian calling cards with end of year reports from schools, caught on as a relatively easy way to communicate holiday wishes to friends and family.

Henry Cole Christmas card, 1843.

Henry Cole Christmas card, 1843.

Not long after Cole’s experiment, color printing technology quickly advanced to significantly lower the cost of production.  At the same time, postal rates were being radically changed in Britain.   The “Penny Post” was first introduced in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple - a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain - and paved the way for the sending of Christmas cards.  The popularity of sending cards was furthered in 1870 when a halfpenny postage rate, stemming from railroad efficiencies, was introduced.

With this, the popularity of Christmas cards, flat cards with a pre-written message and illustration on the front and the address on the back, exploded in the U.K.  By the 1880s, sales reached into the millions.  In 1877, it was estimated that 4,500,000 letters and cards were sent in the seven days before Christmas.  By 1881, over 11.5 million cards were produced in Britain.

Christmas cards were sold in toy and bookshops and by stationers and tobacconists. They were reviewed in newspapers, as books are today.  Advertisements detailed the designs of cards in the run up to Christmas.

The Victorians liked to collect all manner of things and Christmas cards became the new craze.  The hobby was especially popular with children, who keep cards in albums often with the date and name of the sender underneath.

Christmas cards made the jump to America in the last quarter of the 1900s.  Card usage quickly surpassed that in Britain.  This was due, in part, to three entrepreneurs.

In 1875, Louis Prang, an immigrant from Prussia and a Boston printer, brought chromolithography to America from Germany ”to make prints look like paintings.”  In 1906, an Ohio immigrant from Poland, Jacob Sapirstein, founded American Greetings.  In 1910, Joyce Clyde Hall, a young postcard seller, founded in Kansas City what would become America’s other greeting card giant, Hallmark.

By 1915, folded cards sent in envelopes started to become more popular.  Though costing more to mail, the folded style permitted senders to add longer personal notes.  The envelope also permitted users to include a photograph or a small cash gift.

Children look at Christmas cards in New York, 1910, New York Times Archive/Public Domain

Children look at Christmas cards in New York, 1910, New York Times Archive/Public Domain