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This is the amazing story behind our love of Christmas cards

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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This is how Christmas cards went from unpopular one-off to global phenomenon. 

My Grandma always sent Christmas cards. Every December, from age 10, it was my job to help her address them and – as she got older and her friends fewer – edit the faded blue book of contacts that held the names she’d collected from her seventy odd years on this earth.

In all honesty, I didn’t relish this task. The book was a confusing maze to navigate. We don’t often write down details with the idea in mind that one day, a fresh pair of eyes will be helping us to make sense of it because we’re a little too foggy to quite recall which one of the three addresses listed for Sandra Smith is the most recent. My Grandma was no different.

But there was a vague sense of importance to the occasion: I was too young to experience my grandmother in her matriarchal prime and these long hours holed up in her specially built annexe, peacefully addressing envelopes to my third-cousins, twice removed, provided an opportunity to hear stories of a life lived long before I was around. 

My Christmas scribing shifts came to an end around age 15, when I got too selfish to continue (why would I give up multiple evenings to write on envelopes when MSN existed?) and my little sister proved more willing. It was only much later, when I no longer called the house I’d grown up in ‘home’ and my Grandma was gone altogether, that I thought about how much I missed that tradition. And how much more I should have treasured it when she was around.

Christmas cards bring people together. And the UK loves them – last year, 100 million single Christmas cards were sold while 900 million more were bought in packs. It’s women who are behind these figures too – 85% of all cards are bought by us. But most people don’t know that Christmas cards are a relatively new custom in the grand scheme of things, only dating back to the mid-Victorian era. 

Plus, despite their majority-female consumer base, the Christmas card was actually invented by a man – who happened to be the founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Always wondered why you’re driven to exchange pieces of stiff cardboard when the festive season rolls around? As the Christmas card celebrates its 175th birthday, Stylist asks Tim Travis, Curator of Word and Image at the V&A, how the Christmas card came to be… 

A busy lifestyle led to the invention of Christmas cards

“Henry Cole, a Victorian civil servant and reformer – who became the V&A Museum’s founding director in 1857 – found he was simply “too busy” at Christmas to perform the customary visits to friends and family expected during the season,” explains Travis.

“He commissioned his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley, to design a ready-made card with an illustration and printed greeting he could send instead.”

The first Christmas card design was created in 1843 by Henry Cole and John Callcott Horsley.

And the design was focused on family time and charity

“[The first card] was a single sheet of stiff pasteboard 13 x 8 cm. It had an illustration printed lithographically in black ink with delicate hand-colouring in watercolours on the front, with the back left blank. Depicted were three generations of a Victorian family sitting round a table with a plum pudding and drinking a toast to the recipient over a banner with the greeting ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.’

The central image was flanked by side panels showing deeds of philanthropy (feeding and clothing the poor) and framed by a trellis of branches overgrown with vines suggestive of seasonal abundance. Above the design the word ‘to’ was followed by a dotted line for the recipient’s name to be filled in and below the word ‘from‘ with a dotted line for the sender’s name. The one in the V&A’s collection was filled in by the artist and sent to Henry Cole. [The inscription] read it was to: ‘His good friend Cole who is a merry old soul and a merry old soul is he & may he be for years to come, hooray!’ and from: instead of his signature he has drawn a tiny self-portrait (holding a palette and brush) and written ‘Xmasse 1843.”

A Christmas card dated from 1860.

At first the Christmas card wasn’t a hit…

“A thousand of the first cards were printed (and hand-coloured). The ones left over were sold by Henry Cole’s business partner Joseph Cundall in their shop Summerly’s Home Treasury for one shilling.

They were a commercial flop and was eventually withdrawn from sale. The price of one shilling each (about the daily wage of a labourer or the cost of a dinner at Henry Cole’s London club The Reform Club) was considered too steep. The card was also criticised for the scene of drinking in the central panel – especially as one of the children was shown being given a sip of wine. It was to be another two decades before Christmas cards caught on – eventually overtaking valentines [the only other commercially sold greeting card in existence at the time] in popularity.” 

It wasn’t until the 1860s that Christmas cards really found their feet.

But when they took off, they really boomed

“At first only middle-class consumers sent Christmas cards, which were an extension of middle-class social customs like visiting cards and letter writing. They were quite expensive and marketed as ‘artistic’ products for fashionable people of taste. Well-known artists were commissioned to illustrate them and competitions were sponsored by publishers to find new talent. Newly published designs were even reviewed in artistic journals.

The popular and commercial heyday of Victorian Christmas cards was the period from the 1860s to the 1890s. Increasingly, advances in colour printing technology enabled mass production and economies of scale which brought a flood of relatively cheap cards onto the market.

The cheaper cards were often sold in packs with names like ‘The Penny Basket’ or ‘The Halfpenny Basket’ (a dozen or half a dozen cards for a penny or halfpenny). They were illustrated with more popular less ‘aesthetic’ scenes, included shaped and novelty cards, regarded rather unfavourably by some reviewers at the time. The range of shops where they could be bought increased from stationers & bookshops to include tobacconists, drapers and toyshops.”

Advances in colour printing technology enabled mass production of Christmas cards.

Christmas cards initially featured summery designs

“Many of the early Christmas cards featured flowers or springtime or summer scenes rather than winter ones. There were two reason for this.

Firstly, many early Christmas card manufacturers had previously made valentines. There was no guarantee that Christmas cards would ever be as popular as valentines – at first the phenomenon was widely thought to be a passing fad – so instead of commissioning new illustrations and creating new printing plates they adapted existing Valentine’s Day ones and simply added a Christmas greeting.

Also sunny, flowery scenes cheered people up during the long, dark, cold winter months before the invention of electric lighting and central heating.”

Early Christmas card manufacturers adapted existing Valentine’s Day designs and added Christmas greetings.

It was books that led to the rise of traditional winterydesigns 

“The seasonal Christmas themes familiar to us today spread from other formats to cards a little later – influenced by popular literature: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), Christmas with the Poets by Henry Vizetelly, illustrated by Myles Birket Foster (published 1852), and 1867 edition of The Old English Xmas by Washington Irving. These books were extremely widely read, reviewed, and frequently re-issued. The familiar iconography of Christmas – robins, holly, mistletoe, eating and drinking, games and entertainments, Father Christmas, presents, etc – came from these and similar books published in the 19th century.

Religious cards were uncommon – perhaps because Christmas cards were regarded as an extension of secular social customs like Christmas visits and letters and had no precedent in religious observance. When religious motifs did appear they were often crosses and flowers or purely sentimental imagery with a devout greeting or scriptural quotation added rather than nativity scenes.

Some subjects and themes were confined to the 19th century and have not carried over to modern times: sumptuous still lives of food and drink, pictures of bonny babies (symbolising the new year) and military subjects/soldiers in uniform (during peacetime).”

Books like A Christmas Carol popularised the symbols of Christmas we recognise today.

It was immigration that led to Christmas cards going global

“Increasingly, many cards (especially at the cheap and cheerful end of the market) were imported from Germany, which in the 19th century led the field in colour printing (especially chromolithography) on a mass-produced scale. After political unrest in Germany in the mid-19th century many German printers/manufacturers emigrated to Britain or America taking their trades with them – for example Louis Prang, known as ‘the father of the American Christmas card’.

Prang emigrated to the USA from Prussian Silesia in 1850. He was an idealist reformer and businessman, and innovator of the ‘Prang method of education’. He set up as a lithographer L. Prang & Co. in Boston in about 1860 and perfected the process of printing in up to 32 colours using zinc plates instead of lithographic stones enabling economies of scale and quality of reproduction that revolutionised the market for mass-produced colour printing. He began printing fine at reproductions but moved into Christmas cards after the introduction of the 2-cent post in 1883, setting the scene for American producers’ domination of the greetings cards industry in the 20th century (Hallmark, etc).”

Christmas cards helped the Victorians stay connected in a world of change

“Once they became established, Christmas cards were valued artistically and sentimentally – more so perhaps than today. They would have been prominently displayed on mantelpieces and tables and kept after Christmas in scrapbooks and albums.

With the rise of industry and the growth of cities people lived and worked further away from the places where they were born and grew up. The people they knew had different occupations and developed wider (if less stable) social networks in the course of a lifetime than was typical in pre-industrial societies.

One of the effects of technological and social change was alienation: both from the means of production of the goods and objects people encountered every day and from a particular locality or way of life that would not have changed over generations in the past.

Consumer products and the shared social activities associated with them created a feeling of connectedness that helped to compensate for that rupture in the fabric of life and generally proved to be extremely popular and durable. Christmas cards were an example of that. Interestingly even today the British, stereotypically un-expressive emotionally, send more greetings cards per head of the population than any other nationality in the world, including America.”

Images: Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum/Getty     


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.

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