In the thick of the Holiday season, running down my to-do list I see:
- Make Christmas cookies for work
- Wash dishes
- Prepare for Michigan trip
- Send Christmas Cards
- Gift Shopping
- Write blog posts…
Hmm…Christmas cards. It’s pretty clear they were started as a commercial venture, but what’s the story behind them?
WHY DO WE SEND CHRISTMAS CARDS?
The nineteenth century custom that correlates to sending cards was the exchange of Christmas letters— and not the form letter of recent years, but personal hand-written letters to all those on your list. Sounds like a lot of work, right?
Sir Henry “Old King” Cole thought so. He commissioned the first Christmas card in London in 1843. A fascinating, diverse man, Cole was the founder and first director of what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum. He hired artist John Colcott Horsley to create a card he could send to his friends. Signing a beautiful card was easier and novel for the time; but it caught on slowly in England.
The creative personal choice of one man soon grew into a new tradition and eventually, a gigantic industry!
FATHER CHRISTMAS CARD
The first American-made Christmas card is said to have been made by R.H. Pease of Albany, NY in the early 1850’s, but German immigrant Louis Prang is considered the Father of the Christmas Card.Prang was born in 1824 in Breslau, Prussian Silesia, which is actually now part of Poland. At the tender age of 13 he apprenticed with his father, a textile manufacturer. He learned the art of engraving, and how to dye and print calico fabric.
Involvement in revolutionary activity against the Prussian government initiated his journey to the United States, via Switzerland. Prang settled in Boston, Massachusetts in 1850.
In Boston, Prang put his engraving skills to work at Gleason’s Magazine as an illustrator. In 1856 he struck out on his own, partnering with Julius Mayer to form the printing company Prang and Mayer, producing business cards, advertisements and the like.
They also printed a popular collectible of the time, album cards. Album cards were series of small scenes that were collected and displayed in special hard-covered albums or envelopes. This artistic offering must have struck a chord with Prang.
After a training trip to Europe in 1864 he replaced the hand-coloring of black and white lithographs with a new process called chromolithography, which used multiple plates to create multi-colored prints.
This process was more automated, but under Prang’s supervision was no less labor intensive.
Some of his designs were so intricate that up to twenty plates were needed to achieve the rich look he required.
He took pride in his “chromos”–his shop produced a quality unmatched by others, and he considered them works of art.
THE AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CARD
Christmas cards had been around for a couple of decades, but it took the touch of Louis Prang to make them wildly popular!
Coming off a successful turn at the World’s Fair of 1873 where he was distributing trade cards, he took the suggestion of the wife of his London agent to add a Christmas greeting to
Prang published his first Christmas cards in 1875—they were immediately popular! It took just six years for his annual sales to hit five million units—huge numbers for back in the day!
Early designs were different from what we are used to seeing today; they featured flowers, birds, fairies and signs of the coming Spring rather than winter or religious scenes.
THE MAN BEHIND THE BUSINESS
Prang wasn’t the usual industrialist of the time. He wanted to inspire and educate the public in the area of decorative art. He felt he was selling affordable works of art, but wanted to encourage the public to create their own art as well.
Starting in 1880 he sponsored Christmas card design contests, with four top prizes ranging from $200 to $1,000—again, big money back in the day!
Prang’s success in the Christmas card market inspired a flood of cheap imitations. Rather than compromise his standards to compete, in the early 1890’s Prang bowed out of the industry he created.
Now we complain about how much time it takes to do Christmas cards—many forego them altogether—yet they were intended to be a time saver!
Of course many people now create their own holiday greetings through internet sites…maybe not quite the level of creativity Louis Prang hoped to inspire, but I think he would appreciate the modern public’s desire to create their own attractive, personal cards!
Are you sending out holiday cards this year? Do you go traditional or internet creation? Share your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to stop over at Facebook for other tidbits over the next couple weeks!
Kavanagh, Marybeth, “Louis Prang, Father of the American Christmas Card,” New-York Historical Museum & Library, December 19, 2012, http://blog.nyhistory.org/prang/
Rested, Penne, “Christmas in 19th Century America,” History Today, Volume: 45, Issue: 12, 1995, http://www.historytoday.com/penne-restad/christmas-19th-century-america
Ristow, Walter W. Worlds of Christmas Greetings. The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October 1978): 234-241.