December 9 is Christmas Card Day, in honor of the day we believe Sir Henry Cole of England marketed the first Christmas Card. Cole, a prominent educator and patron of the arts, had the misfortune of knowing too many people. During the holiday season of 1843, his friends were adding to his anxiety. An old custom in England – the Christmas and New Year’s letter – had seen a recent revival with the advent of the “Penny Post” where you could send a letter anywhere in the country for only a penny stamp (half the price of an ordinary letter). Suddenly, everybody was sending letters.
Sir Cole was an enthusiastic supporter of the postal system, but the stack of unanswered letters was starting to worry him. He traveled in elite Victorian circles and enjoyed the 1840s equivalent of A-List status. It would have been a social faux pas to ignore his mail and not respond, but he was having real trouble keeping up. He had to figure out a way to respond to all those letters.
Cole hit on an ingenious idea. He asked artist friend J.C. Horsley to design what Cole had imagined: a trio of images showing a happy family celebrating a holiday feast flanked by two images of people helping the poor. Cole then took Horsley’s illustrations to his printer and had a thousand copies made up. The first Christmas card was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 & 1/8 by 3 & ¼ inches in size. At the top of each card was the salutation “TO _______” which allowed Cole to personalize each card. They also included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”
However, the cards weren’t without controversy. The image of the happy family enjoying their holiday dinner supposedly showed what looked like glasses of wine at the places of several small children. Since there was a big Temperance movement in England at the time, this was touted as supporting underage drinking.
Of course, the criticism wasn’t enough to keep Cole’s friends from recognizing a good time-saver when they saw one. Within a few years, several other prominent Victorians had copied Cole’s idea and were sending out their own cards. Early cards showed Nativity or snow scenes. In the late Victorian era, the British robin became popular. It took several decades for the Christmas card to really catch on with the masses, both in England and in America. But by 1870, the cost of sending a postcard or Christmas card in England dropped to half a penny, and the boom was on.
Louis Prang, a Prussian printer in Boston, is generally credited with creating the first American Christmas card in 1875. English cards had been sold in America since the 1840s but were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford them. Prang’s card was significantly different from the one Cole and Horsley created in that it didn’t even contain a holiday image. Instead, it showed a flower and the message “Merry Christmas.” “This artistic, subtle approach would categorize this first generation of American Christmas cards,” says John Hanc of Smithsonian Magazine. These cards typically showed animals or nature, scenes that could have taken place almost any time of the year. There were few nativity scenes or holiday celebrations.
In the late 1800s, appreciation of the quality and artistry of the cards grew – aided in part by competitions for the best images put on by the greeting card publishers. People soon began collecting the cards like they would stamps or butterflies. “The new crop each season were reviewed in newspapers, like books of films today.” In 1894, prominent magazine The Studio devoted an entire issue to the study of Christmas cards. British arts writer Gleeson White found the designs interesting but wasn’t impressed by the printed sentiments on the cards. “It’s obvious,” he wrote, “that for the sake of their literature no collection would be worth making.”
The very first known “personalized” Christmas card was sent by the famous Annie Oakley in 1891. She was in Glasgow, Scotland for the holiday and sent cards back home to friends and family with a photo of herself wearing a tartan. Annie supposedly designed the cards herself and worked with a local printer to produce them.
Your characters would have associated Christmas cards with these postcards. The modern book type card didn’t come into use until around 1915 with the incorporation of the Hall Brothers postcard printing company (they later changed the name to Hallmark). They soon adapted a new format for the cards: 4 x 6 inches, folded in half and inserted in an envelope. The Hall brothers discovered that people didn’t have enough room on a typical post card to say all they wanted, but they didn’t want to write a long letter either. A folded card was perfect.
And thus, the American Christmas Card was off and running. Holiday greetings have been on our minds since the 1800s, and your characters would have at least sent a letter to friends and family, if they couldn’t afford (or didn’t have access to) a postcard. It’s a nice touch to add to a story, especially if you’re looking for a good way to add family backstory.