Taking a Look at the History of Festive Greeting Cards

A holiday origin story

by Sarah Forman | Mon, December 11, 2017

A now common tradition, the sending of holiday cards has become a great way for families and individuals to connect with loved ones at home and abroad. Often they make their way onto mantel pieces or refrigerators, a way of commemorating and materializing the relationships that mean so much to us in a season that is defined by togetherness. But where did this ritual come from and how did it evolve into the great, holiday hallmark that it is today?

You've got the mail

We turn to jolly old England for a look into its papered origin. In 1843, civic servant Sir Henry Cole was an assistant at the newly established Public Record Office – now known as the Post Office. With the introduction of the “Penny Post” three years prior, public services had become available to more than just the British elite, creating an opportunity for letters to be sent for only a penny.

Christmas Post

The newly built railways enabled trains to carry greater amounts of cargo faster, a major transition from the yester-years of horse and carriage transportation. While some believe that Sir Cole was looking to increase the postal system’s use amongst the general population, others contest his motivations to be a little more self-serving.

Old Christmas Card

In the 1800s, it was customary among those who could afford it to send full-blown letters at Christmas and New Year, a formal acknowledgement of a relationship and a time-consuming endeavor. Having been instrumental in the postal system’s establishment, Cole, an A-lister himself, watched as the letters began to pile up in his home, aware of how not responding to each might harm his social status and be perceived as a sign of disrespect. Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, said when speaking to the Smithsonian Magazine:

“In Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail . . . He had to figure out a way to respond to all of these people.”

Friends in high places

While Cole was faced with the problem of having too many friends, a dear one, John Callcott Horsley, would be the one to help him through it. A painter, illustrator, and designer, he had recently won first prize in a competition to provide the interior decorations for the Palace of Westminster, having illustrated a cartoon of “St Augustine Preaching”. Cole approached him not long after, and asked for his help.

Describing a festive holiday meal, Cole commissioned Callcott’s hand in what would become a three-paneled, cardboard card sporting a generic end-of-year greeting and a blank space for addressing and signing. In the center, a family celebrating over a meal featured a small child drinking wine (scandalous even at that time), framed by images of charity on either side. Around 1,000 were printed and sold for a shilling each, marking the birth of the first commercial Christmas card.

International shipping

It wasn’t until decades later that the cards became truly popular, and the first to be created in the United States is credited to Louis Prang in 1875 – a Prussian immigrant who owned a print shop outside Boston. American cards differed from those that had become popular in the UK, featuring images that were more artistically oriented and less literal in their relation to the holidays themselves. But many consider the real turning point in the US to have taken place in 1915, when a postcard printing company in Kansas City published its first holiday card. Started by Joyce Hall, he was later joined by his two brothers, who made changes to the standard sizing and format of the mailers. A decade later, they would go on to change their company’s name to Hallmark – arguably the biggest and most well-known greeting card brand.

Christmas Cards

In both countries, the industry has exploded and become an integral part of the season. Cole went on to found the well-established Victoria and Albert Museum, located in central London, where the first Christmas card lives today. With growing diversity and cultural awareness, the category has expanded to include other holidays such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or simply winter greetings.

While there are now ample designs and sizes to choose from, for many, what makes a holiday card so special is its personalization – a marker of time, place, and creativity. This year, we’d like to help you make the most of your mail by showcasing four fantastic spots around the city that will make for a standalone backdrop this holiday season while we will be showing you in Part Two tomorrow, so keep an eye out!