Who invented Christmas cards?

Note: This article may have affiliate links to Amazon or other companies. Purchases through these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Learn more here.

Every year, I sit down and write out something like a million Christmas cards to send to friends and family. Where did this tradition of mailing a card to everyone you know and their brother/mother for Christmas actually start?

  1. What is the origin of Christmas cards?

    Get carded

    Mailing Christmas cards to our loved ones (and other people we know) is an annual tradition for many of us, as is maintaining the list of those to actually receive the cards. In some families, it’s more of a production than Christmas dinner, shopping for presents, and holiday travel all wrapped — pardon the pun — into one.

    Not many of us stop to think about where the tradition of mailing Christmas cards came from, however. It’s just something we do — mom sent them, her mom sent them, and so we’re darn well going to send them. So let’s stop licking those horrible-tasting envelopes for a few minutes and take a look at the history of the Christmas card.

    Season’s greetings

    While families have undoubtably been exchanging letters around Christmas time since the advent of mail service (and no doubt before), the commercially-produced Christmas card is a relatively newcomer to the yuletide greeting scene.

    The first commercially-printed Christmas card originated in London in 1843. Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and inventor, commissioned painter John Callcott Horsley to create a card for that year’s Christmas season. Horsley created a triptych (a triple panel picture), with the two side panels depicting a good deed (clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, to be specific) and the centerpiece being a large group of adults and children enjoying plentiful food and drink. The inscription on the card read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” Two batches, totaling 2050 cards, were produced and sold for a shilling each. (One of those first Christmas cards, pictured above, sold in 2001 to a collector for £22,500.)

    From that time on, the popularity of the printed card exploded in England — followed shortly thereafter by Germany. It’s interesting to note that the early cards rarely featured winter or religious themes, as are popular today. Instead, they often depicted flowers, fairies, and other designs that were intended to remind the recipient of the upcoming spring season.

    It took another 30 some-odd years for the idea to catch on in the United States, however. Boston lithographer Louis Prang (a German immigrant) became the first printer to offer commercially-produced Christmas cards in America in 1875. Unfortunately, his cards were so popular they spawned cheap imitations that eventually drove Prang out of the Christmas card market in 1890, but to this day he is still recognized as the “Father of the American Christmas card.”

    Much like the early English cards, his designs featured floral arrangements — not Santa/Kris Kringle/St Nicholas or scenes of snow and ice like we usually see today (at least in the northern hemisphere).

    For a brief time after the introduction of the postcard, this format of Christmas card drove the more ornate and elaborate style of folded card from popularity, but the envelope made a comeback by the 1920s — and the rest, as they say, is history.

    The most wonderful time of the year (for cardmakers)

    By the beginning of the 21st century, Christmas cards had become almost ridiculously big business. The average American household recieves 20 Christmas cards per year, and the Greeting Card Association states that over two billion (yes, with a “B”) boxed and individual Christmas cards were sold in the US in 2010 alone. Perhaps I picked the wrong line of work.

Comments are closed.