by Bob Brooke

May traditions, old and new bring happiness to your holiday. 




hristmas cards have been a popular way for people to express their holiday greetings to friends and relatives since the mid-19th century. J.C. Horsley designed the first Christmas card in 1843. He placed three separate images on the front–a large center drawing depicting a family gathered around table toasting the holiday with wine and two side panels, one depicting a well-dressed woman draping a cloak around a poor woman and child, the other depicting the distribution of food among the poor.

It took two decades for Christmas cards to catch on because, not only had postal rates been higher, but also the post office charged the postage to the addressee rather than to the sender. As soon as the post office changed its policy, people began sending cards. The first Christmas cards, modeled after Victorian visiting cards, didn’t fold. Instead, designers created small rectangles of pasteboard, about the size of an index card, decorated on one side with a lithographed or etched drawing, a greeting, and blank space for the names of both the sender and the addressee. By the 1870s, manufacturers had started producing larger cards and folded cards. Some opened out like cupboard doors; others fell into accordion folds. Some of the most common images found on Victorian Christmas cards are still familiar symbols of the holiday today–holly, ivy, mistletoe, winter landscapes, and Christmas parties. The Victorians loved natural things and used other images on their cards that focused less on Christmas, such as flowers, shrubs, and trees. Animals, often portrayed as humans, provided another popular subject for the Victorian Christmas card. Images of children, playing with angelic expressions, also adorned many cards.

Since they lived during the Industrial Age, Victorians loved Christmas cards featuring new inventions, such as the motorcar or bicycle. And though Victorian morals frowned upon pubic sexual expression, some cards had portraits of beautiful girls dressed in flimsy robes or partially nude.

One of the strangest images found on late 19th-century Christmas cards was a dead robin lying in the snow. Perhaps the Victorian’s obsession with death and fondness for images that evoked pity can explain this unique custom.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that Christmas cards became popular in America. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, began to turn out cards decorated with recognizable Christmas symbols–poinsettias, ivy, and holly. His cards grew larger as his designs became more elaborate and eventually measured seven by ten inches. Americans loved Prang's card designs and began collecting them. Unfortunately, Prangs cards were expensive, so only the wealthy could afford to buy them.

As the turn of the 20th century approached, Americans often exchanged small gifts with their friends. By the 1920s, however, the price of Christmas cards had fallen enough so that many people ­began giving or sending cards instead. Today, American greeting card companies sell more cards for Christmas than any other holiday. But with the continual rise in postage rates and the cost of cards, themselves, more people, unfortunately, are choosing not to send them.