Early Christmas Cards

150 years of holiday greetings

From a simple Christmas greeting

It seems like Christmas cards have been around forever. However, the first Christmas card is credited to artist and illustrator John Callcott Horsley in London around 1843 in the UK. He was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, art patron, and educator. The card represented passing on holiday cheer and strong family relationships, while encouraging charity and helping one’s fellow man. The earliest cards were commonly more secular than religious. Sir Cole initially commissioned 1000 cards to be made which he sent and handed out to friends and relatives. Of the 1000 only 12 are known to exist and one sold in 2001 for almost $30,000!

Initially mail was cost prohibited for all but the wealthy. In 1840 the first “Penny Post” public postal deliveries were started, making mail service affordable to the masses. Mail could be sent for a penny. Previously, mail delivery was charged by mileage. Christmas cards didn’t become available until the late 1840’s in America but were very expensive and mostly unaffordable to a large part of the population.

In 1875 Louis Prang, a lithographer and publisher, who had worked in the UK making Christmas cards, arrived in America from Germany. He was an early adopter of the chromolithographic color printing process and was the first commercial greeting card producer in America. Louis Prang was known as the Father of the American Christmas card. He settled in Boston where, at one time, Christmas celebrations were banned by Puritans because they considered such frivolity an invention of the devil! Unfortunately for Prang, the Hall brothers started their company, Hallmark Cards, a few years later and put Louis out of business!

Early Christmas cards didn’t show religious scenes. They were usually scenes of birds, flowers and children. Some of America’s greatest artists and illustrators worked for the Hallmark and other card makers to fill the rapidly growing interest in sending and giving holiday cards. Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell all designed cards for Hallmark. Christmas was the largest card market, but soon other holidays followed.

LARGE Postcard Sleeve

4-1/2 x 6-1/4″ 4 mil POLYETHYLENE NO flap. Image shows clear sleeves in packing bag.

Easter and Thanksgiving were very big. However, Halloween was the biggest market after Christmas. With such beautiful images and themes, holiday cards became (and still are) extremely collectable. In 1913, Hallmark, basically a postcard printing company, entered the Christmas card market. They discovered many people wished to send and give out these holiday cards but also wished for more space to write personal messages.

In response, Hallmark, in 1915, established the 4×6 format for their post cards as the standard, leaving plenty of room to write greetings on the back and mail them for a penny.
1915 was the height of the postcard craze, including the RPPC (Real Photo Postcards). RPPCs made it possible for people to take their own pictures and have them printed on postcards. And with Kodak and their Brownie and folding cameras everyone was taking pictures! Kodak had introduced their Velox printing papers, making it possible for anyone to take a picture, send the negative to Kodak or their local drugstore and have their own
personalized postcard made. Someone came up with the idea to add a seasonal greeting to the postcards beginning the trend of personalized Christmas cards.

Kodak’s advertising and marketing departments revolutionized Christmas marketing. They controlled both the camera and processing of photography. Lithographed greeting cards were still the biggest seller; however, a major boost to photo Christmas cards was on the horizon. Previously, presidents and the White House would send out notes and letters as holiday greetings. But that changed in 1933.

The President and Mrs Roosevelt sent the first photo greeting card. It was a trend that many presidents continued. Still a small part of the greeting market, by the early fifties the popularity of these cards widened. By the time photo greeting cards became popular, many small, independent photo film developers had been established. It was no longer necessary to send film to Kodak and wait a week or two to get pictures back. Initially, old contact printing technologies were used. This process was very labor intensive, unlike the lithographic greeting cards that were mechanically produced. But the lithographic process wasn’t practical for photo cards because the amount of cards needed were in much smaller qualities.

A person would use his or her Brownie or folding camera, take a personal picture and take it to their favorite drug store to be developed and printed. Drug stores were mainly independently owned and welcomed the side business. Darkrooms were set up in these stores, and the workers already had knowledge of chemicals, and their mixing and use, so it was a perfect match. The darkroom operator would develop the film then contact print the negative onto a precut sized piece of photo paper. Along with the negative, a mask would also be used to imprint a greeting on the card. Then each individual card would be hand developed in the chemical trays. It took a good eye and practice to develop all the cards to match! Fortunately, most orders were for smaller numbers, generally around 25 cards.

My first high school part time job was making Christmas cards this way. By the early 1960’s, fiber based papers were replaced with RC or resin coated papers. Black and white photo greeting cards were quickly replaced by color photo cards. Printing machines now did the bulk of the work. Negatives were still used, so these were actual photo prints and not mechanical prints made up of dots. Many different masks and greetings were available. However, as with all things, times change.

Digital cameras and the internet have made it faster and easier to produce photo cards. The rise in the cost of postage is sometimes a deterrent, but is often offset by the decrease in price as the production process has become automated.

Early black and white photo cards are printed on fiber paper. These should be treated in the same manner as other old photos. Newer plastic-coated color photo greeting cards are not as easily damaged. I’m not sure there is a large interest in preserving these memories; however, an archival scrapbook is an easy way to save these and view them.

Sleeves for Single Cards – A6

4-15/16 x 6-9/16″ 1.5 mil POLYPROPYLENE with Resealable flap Reseal tape is located on the body of the bag Holds 1 A6/6 Bar greeting card with envelope

The old holiday cards bring back great memories. They are filled with beautiful artistic images and colors making them highly collectable! The materials were fragile, and their storage needs special consideration. Colors can easily fade, and surfaces can easily be scratched. Light and humidity are destructive factors. Sadly, most are stored in old boxes and occasionally thumbed through for viewing. Each instance of physical contact deteriorates these beautiful images. Stored properly they will bring joy for many years.

-Bob Walden