A History of Christmas Cards: From the Peculiar to the Presidential
The now-traditional tradition of exchanging Christmas cards is one of the newest hallmarks of the Christmas holidays, established long after the Christmas tree, presents or Santa Claus.
In fact, the tradition took inspiration from Valentine’s Day, in which loved ones would exchange cards celebrating the day. Consequently, some of the first Christmas cards were…a bit unusual.
FIRST CHRISTMAS CARD, 1611
Although the first Christmas card technically dates back to the early 1611 in a card sent to King James I (yes, THAT King James), mass-produced cards as we know them didn’t evolve into a holiday tradition until 200 years later.
FIRST CONSUMER CHRISTMAS CARD, 1843
Although the 1843 card seems pleasant enough, having an entire family (children included) toasting with wine to the recipient’s good health teased controversy. The card’s creator, John Callcott Horsley, knew that. He also knew that, just like today, controversy sells. He quickly made a small fortune on his card and established an entire industry.
Cards in Victorian England rarely had religious themes but instead alluded to the coming of spring. Instead of human characters, the cards featured animals in humorous or even deranged situations.
In 1874, enterprising lithographer Louis Prang decided to branch out into the American market and introduced Christmas cards in the States. His investment proved worthwhile. Within ten years he was manufacturing and selling five million Christmas cards a year.
PRANG CARD, 1876
The Christmas card industry was originally the purveyance of small stationary companies and artists. This all changed in 1913 when a small company from Kansas City named Hallmark decided to produce not just a single series of generic Christmas cards, but cards for a variety of situations and holidays.
Arguably the most famous Christmas card artist was and is famed American artist Norman Rockwell. He provided 32 Christmas cards for Hallmark, cementing his folksy brand of Americana in the country’s most observed holiday.
Not every Christmas card was a hit. Salvador Dali’s thankfully brief attempt at the commercial arts produced Christmas card designs that buyers thought too surreal or downright weird. Like Dali himself.
Since the 1900s, Hallmark has been the, well, the hallmark of Christmas cards and decor. The company’s biggest success was in 1977 with the card, “Three Little Angels”. This simple card has sold over 35 million copies (and counting!) since its first printing.
Corporate cards allowed companies to both offer holiday greetings…and do a little seasonal advertising. Companies like Coca-Cola turned the corporate Christmas card into an art form. Although the soda company did not invent our image of Santa Claus, they certainly popularized it!
Official Presidential Christmas cards also grew in popularity. Simply receiving a signed and/or personalized card became a mark of prestige. Only one year came and went without the delivery of the President’s Christmas card: 1963. Although JFK had signed 75 of the cards before his fateful trip to Dallas, they were not sent out.
Sadly, the Christmas card industry is shrinking with the use of e-mail. Home receive roughly 40% fewer cards today than they did thirty years ago, a number that continues to increase. Shrinking is a relative term. In 2015, 1.4 billion Christmas cards were mailed in the United States. Households might receive fewer cards than they did fifty years ago…but there are many more households today.