December 5, 2015

Christmas Cards

It is thought that the early Christmas cards were inspired by the pre-existing tradition of New Year’s cards which came about in the 1400s with the birth of the printing press. It is thought that Valentine’s cards influenced Christmas Cards more than the New Year’s Cards; apparently Valentine’s were already popular in the early nineteenth century when the very first Christmas cards were printed. The first Christmas card was designed by Englishmen J.C. Horsley (1817-1903) in 1843. Three separate images adorn the front of the card. A large center drawing depicts a family gathered around a table, wine glasses in hand. One woman gives a small child a sip of the wine; a detail which caused temperance advacates to object. A small side panel depicts a well-dressed woman draping a cloak around a poor woman and child. The other side panel depicts the distribution of food among the poor. The producer of these cards printed about 1000 and sold them for one shilling each.

The first Christmas card

The first Christmas card

The new custom of sending Christmas cards did not catch on right away. It took two decades for the Christmas cards to establish itself as an annual institution in England. The birth of the penny post, beginning in 1840, provided an inexpensive means of posting the cards to spread. Before that time, not only had postal rates been higher, but also the post office changed the postage to the addressee not the sender. The public responded enthusiastically to the new postal system. Between 1840 and 1845 the number of letters sent in Great Britain nearly doubled. The first Christmas cards did not fold and were no bigger than an index card, they were printed on one side only. The decorated side bore a lithographed or etched drawing, a greeting and a blank space for the name of the sender and the addressee. By the 1870s manufacturers had started producing larger cards and folded cards; some of the early folding cards were designed to open out like cardboard doors, others fell in accordion folds.

Trick cards also originated in the 1870s. Their clever designs delighted Victorians. Pulling a paper lever on the face of the card, for example, might add or subtract something from the design or change it completely. Pop-up cards also tickled the Victorians fancies. Some cleverly designed cards contained hidden images that only appeared only if viewed from a certain angle or in a certain light.

From the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

From the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

By the 1880s Victorian Christmas cards reflected the ornate taste of the age. Designers embellished the images printed on the cards with a variety of materials, including paper lace, real lace, shells, seaweed, dried grass, flowers, silk, velvet, chenille, tinsel, celluloid, crewel work, metal plates, and small sachets or scented powders. They frosted surfaces with powdered glass or aluminum. For the finishing touch they embossed or scalloped the edges of their cards, or even finished them with lace, cords, ribbons, or silk. The images on the Victorian Christmas cards are almost the same as ours including: holly, ivy, mistletoe, robins, wrens, winter landscapes, Christmas feasts and parties.

During the 1890s and 1900s the majority of American Christmas gift givers exchanged flimsy knickknacks with their friends. By the second decade of the twentieth century, though, Americans turned toward cards as a tasteful and inexpensive alternative to the trinkets people exchanged. The new inexpensive Christmas cards quickly grew in popularity, especially during World War I.

Today, American greeting card manufacturers sell more cards for Christmas than any other holiday. It has been estimated that over 75 percent of all Americans send greeting cards at Christmas time.


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