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The History of Christmas Cards

Henry Cole was a prominent member of society in Victorian England. It was an already an established tradition to send Christmas and New Year’s letters, and during the holiday season of 1843, he became overwhelmed by the massive amount of letters he received from his many friends after the British postal system expanded and became more affordable. Because it was considered rude not to reply to each one, Cole was quite distressed. He approached an artist friend named J.C. Horsley and asked him to create an illustration that Cole had already sketched out — a triptych showing a family at a table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor. Then Cole took the image and had a London printer make 1,000 copies on stiff pieces of cardboard. At the top of each was a salutation (“TO:____”), which allowed Cole to personalize his responses. Each of the prints also included a generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” These were the first known Christmas cards. Notably, Cole and Horsley’s image depicted young children with glasses of wine and much of England was in the midst of a temperance movement, but the controversy was not enough to blunt the enthusiasm for the cards. In fact, many of Cole’s friends recognized the cards as a good way to save time, and within a few years, several other prominent Victorians also began sending copies of Cole's Christmas cards. It took several decades for the cards to catch on in England and America though. Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with making the first American Christmas card in 1875. It featured a painting of a flower and said simply, “Merry Christmas.” Early American Christmas cards generally followed this approach and featured artistic images of animals and nature rather than celebratory or Nativity scenes. People even began collecting Christmas cards! In 1915, the modern Christmas card industry began when Joyce Hall (who was later joined by his brothers Rollie and William at the Hall Brothers company — which would soon become Hallmark) published his first holiday card. Hall created a new “book” format for the cards, which still persists today. Christmas cards became hugely popular in the 1930s – 1950s and famous artists were even commissioned to create unique cards, including Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell. Over time, the cards became an integral part of celebrations beyond Christmas and New Year’s, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Winter Solstice. And of course, the cards are still massively popular today.

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