The Evolution of the American Christmas Card

Christmas cards didn’t always have awkward family photos of your neighbors in matching sweaters. They didn’t always flood your inbox with animated prancing reindeer. They didn’t always depict wintery wonderlands with holiday greetings.

Louis Prang, the Bostonian who brought Christmas cards to the U.S. in 1874, had a different idea of seasons greeting that has been transformed by societal and technological norms through the years.

And now with these advancements, we can “Elf’’ ourselves.

Somehow compared to the nostalgic cards of the past, this seems less than appealing.

Sir Henry Cole created the first Christmas card, originating in England in 1843.

“In 1877, a letter writer to the London times huffed that ‘a great social evil’ had descended upon Britain and Ireland. His peeve? It was that most festive of holiday greetings—Christmas cards! The writer decried the ‘cartloads of children’s cards that delayed legitimate correspondence.’ Venting his spleen in a manner that might have seemed humbug to Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the ‘man of letters’ ranted: ‘The wide population [in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales], men, women, and children, seemed suddenly to have given itself over to the stationers and fancy shops and their endless variety of [Christmas] cards.’’ (Boston Globe, 2007)

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Louis Prang created the first American Christmas cards at his Roxbury factory in 1874 using high quality lithographs. Within five years, he had his annual sales surpassed the 5 million mark.

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Many of Prang’s cards featured animals and un-Christmas-y pastoral scenes.

“One featured two Halloweenish, wide-eyed owls, perched on an icy tree branch with a bright smiling moon wishing you a Merry Christmas.’’ (Boston Globe, 1973)


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Once Prang became an established card creator in the U.S., he started recruiting other illustrators. One of the most successful artists featured on his cards was Kate Greenaway.

“After Greenaway had worked for Ward for nearly six years, she left because he refused to return any of her original drawings after reproduction on cards and calendars and in books. For one of Greenaways’s most famous cards—which sold an astonishing 25,000 copies in just a few weeks—Ward, evincing some pronounced Ebenezer Scrooge-like accounting, paid her all of three pounds.’’ (Boston Globe, 2007)

Now that is the Christmas spirit from our greeting card founder!

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Candles were probably the most popular Christmas card motif during the first half of the American century, the Globe said in 2002. Poinsettias began showing up on cards during the 1900s. Three Kings were notably popular in the 1920s.

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During the late ‘30s, some cards showed men getting the women in their lives luxurious items like furs and jewelry.

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During the interwar years, ships and Americana motif became popular on cards, though it has no clear holiday affiliation.

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The jolly Santa from a 1948 Hallmark card became exceptionally popular, showing St. Nick as many still picture him today.

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In the ‘60s personalized cards became increasingly popular.

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The ‘70s became a time for more politically charged holiday cards, with messages of peace and even gender equality.

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In 1980, Christmas cards were made and sent to the U.S. hostages in Iran.


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The early ‘80s also was marked with cards that had metallic foils and satiny finishes.

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The late ‘80s saw a rise in glitter usage, along with other decorative marks like the pop-up finish used in this 1989 Graham Gund Architects card.

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By the early ‘90s, Christmas card isles were filled with hundreds of paper cards to choose from. But with the arrival of the internet around the corner, sales in the turn of the century saw a decrease and a change in the Christmas card as we knew it.

According to Marketwatch, sales of traditional greeting cards have fallen by roughly 60 percent over the past decade, to an estimated $5.4 billion in 2013— a figure that includes some other printed matter such as diaries.

At the same time, the popularity of online cards has surged, with sales of electronic cards — or custom printed ones ordered online — up to $3.5 billion in 2012 from just $65 million a decade ago. However, personalized printed cards are not that new. The Bard Show actually has a personalized photographic card dating to 1924, according to the Boston Globe.

Overall, the mystic and excitement of the peak Christmas card days are gone. In 1958 the average US family mailed 100 Christmas cards, according to the Boston Globe. In 2001, American families sent and received an average of 28 Christmas cards each.

Over a decade later, front doors once covered from the frame to the floor in Christmas cards from friends and family are now barely half full.

Emails with animated figures are amusing to watch, but there is still a longing for holiday cards with frolicking animals and glitter that sticks to your fingers.


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