‘Tis the season for sending and receiving holiday cards! Perhaps you create your own cards with a photo of your family and/or your pets. Maybe you spend a chunk of time in the card section of your local big box store, picking out the perfect card to send to your family and friends. It could be the season goes by too fast for you to even send any cards or you just do not send holiday cards at all. Regardless, it is likely you have received a holiday card at least once in your life. How did this trend come about?
The Birth of the Christmas Card
The first known Christmas card was published in London in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole hired John Calcott Horsely, an artist, to design a holiday card for his friends. Cole was the direct of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He wanted a card depicting a happy Christmas scene. After he sent out the card to his friends, he began a trend among other artists and printers. In the United States, the first Christmas Card appeared in 1850. It was produced by R. H. Pease of Albany, New York. It would take another 25 years for the idea to catch on and become a widespread practice in the U.S.
The Father of the American Christmas Card
In 1850, Louis Prang immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. Settling in Boston, he worked as a wood engraver. Six years later, he formed a partnership with Julius Mayer and they created Prang and Mayer, a lithographic and copper plate manufacturer. When Prang became the sole owner in 1860, the firm printed business cards, announcements, and other forms of memorabilia (including Civil War maps and novelty items). In 1874, Prang began producing greeting cards for England as there was a big market for cards. The next year, he introduced the Christmas card to the general public through his elegant chromolithographed cards. They were immediately successful and profitable. By the early 1880s, Prang was printing around five million holiday cards a year.
According to the New York Historical Society, Prang included other artists into the holiday card realm:
From 1880 to 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of $1000, $500, $300 and $200 for the top four designs. The contests attracted well-know figures in the art and design world. Judges included painters John La Farge and Samuel Colman, architect Stanford White and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Prizes were awarded to American artists such as Elihu Vedder, Rosina Emmet Sherwood, and Edwin H. Blashfield.
Prang continued to produce his popular cards until the profitability started to wean in the early 1890s when cheaper German postcards flooded the greeting card market. He reportedly did not want to ‘cheapen’ his designs to compete so he withdrew from the Christmas card arena. However, through his contributions to the greeting card industry, Prang is considered the “Father of the American Christmas Card.”
While Prang was dealing with competition from abroad, an iconic figure started popping up on holiday trade cards – Santa Claus. The jolly man in red caused these trading cards to become popular collectibles. Trade cards were small cards advertising goods or services. Even though, by our standards, these trade cards are not ‘traditional’ folded cards, it still influenced the development and popularity of holiday cards.
The Rise of Greeting Cards
Between 1900 and 1915, businesses dealing exclusively (or mostly) in greeting cards arose. Such names as Hallmark (1910-present), American Greetings (1906-present), and P. F. Volland (1908-1959) entered the greeting card industry. These companies produced greeting cards for all occasions. As technology continued to improve output, card manufacturing became an increasingly lucrative, as well as competitive, business. For example, Hallmark and American Greetings are not only competitors now, but have been competitors since the early 20th century.
By the late 1920s, the greeting card industry employed more than 5,000 workmen at as many as 40 factories in the U.S. alone. Top artisans were contracted each year to design new designs. Companies hoped their new designs would out sell their rival firms. To make sure the designs would be kept a secret, companies would pay artisans well and closely guard the designs to prevent competitors from discovering and stealing them.
Not everyone jumped on the greeting card bandwagon. In an article in the December 1928 issue of The North American Review, Samuel Grafton asserted that fifty-five million dollars were spent that year on greeting cards. The card industry wanted to make consumers believe that the tradition of sending and receiving greeting cards is centuries old. Grafton commented, “[t]o be sure, we are being bamboozled into a calm acceptance of the very recent card as a very old tradition. There is no doubt that we are behaving like sheep, and that we glory in following the bell-wether.” Even with Grafton’s, as well as other critics’, views on greeting cards, consumers still accepted greeting cards as another tradition to the holiday season.
White House Christmas Card
For almost 90 years, the sitting presidents of the United States have issued Christmas cards to send holiday greetings to the American public, their staff, and supporters. The list of who receives a Presidential Christmas card has changed over the years but the tradition does not look to be ending anytime soon.
In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge (aka “Silent Cal”) issued the first official Presidential Christmas message. He wrote, in his own hand, on White House stationary a message to the American people. He was prompted to do this by the numerous requests for a holiday greeting. Newspapers across the country published the message at Coolidge’s request. President Herbert Hoover followed in Coolidge’s footsteps and issued a photograph of himself in the Rose Garden of the White House grounds in 1931. A personalized holiday greeting in the photograph’s margin.
The official 1942 Presidential Christmas card was a single-sided black and white photograph of President and Mrs. Roosevelt sitting outside the Oval Office. The card’s greeting read, “With Christmas Greetings and our Best Wishes for a Happier New Year, The President and Mrs. Roosevelt.” The Truman’s 1951 card was slightly different from the predecessors. The White House was undergoing renovations from 1948 – 1952. The Trumans lived in the Blair House during the renovations. Their 1951 Presidential Christmas card reflected this change by displaying a photograph of the Blair House. It was sent to President and Mrs. Truman’s friends, family, and Cabinet.
President Eisenhower’s 1955 card was not a photograph but, rather, it was a smooth, blue silk screen background with the Presidential Seal embossed on it. Eisenhower also expanded the list of recipients significantly two years prior (in 1953) to include American ambassadors abroad, members of the Cabinet and Congress, foreign heads of state and government officials. In all, around 1,300 recipients received the holiday greeting – now officially known as the White House Christmas card.
The Kennedy’s followed Eisenhower’s trend by offering a card with the Presidential Seal and the words “Season’s Greetings 1961” embossed on the simple, green and white silk screen card. Inside the card the sentiment read, “The President and Mrs. Kennedy Wish you a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year.” The Johnsons decided to go back with an image – though not a photograph – on their 1967 card. A reproduction of Robert Laessig’s interior painting of the Christmas tree in the Blue Room was chosen as the image which would be sent to 2,600 recipients.
President Nixon also went the reproduction route and chose a painting by N.C. Wyeth to grace the 1971 Christmas card. The painting depicted the building of the First White House and showed President George Washington and James Hoban (architect of the White House) inspecting the uncompleted building. During his presidency, Nixon also greatly increased the recipient list to around 40,000.
The Fords acknowledged the country’s bicentennial celebrations by choosing an “Old-fashioned Christmas” as the theme. George H. Durrie’s Farmyard in Winter (an 1858 painting) graced the 1975 White House Christmas card. Three years later, the Carters used a hand-colored wood engraving of the White House for their card. No year appeared on the inside of the card but it included the Presidential Seal and their greeting, “With best wishes from our family for a happy holiday season.”
The 1986 official White House Christmas card was the first card in a series of paintings by Thomas William Jones. Mrs. Reagan showcased three White House rooms that had not previously been the subject of a Presidential Christmas card. The East Room was highlighted for the 1986 card. The State Dining Room and the North Entry Hall were showcased the next two years. Thrilled with artist Kamil Kubik’s impression of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, the President and Mrs. Bush asked to use the image for their official 1992 Christmas card — the first time the National Tree was the subject of a Presidential Christmas card. The image depicted tiers of red, white and blue lights on the snow-covered National Tree with the White House in the background.
President and Mrs. Clinton asked Thomas McKnight to provide an artistic image of the Blue Room, after it was renovated, for their official 1995 Christmas cards. The “Fantasy Blue Room” depicted a cozy room with the Christmas tree in the corner and the White House animals sleeping underneath. Artist Adrian Martinez designed President Bush’s 2001 holiday card which features the Second Floor Corridor of the White House with Mary Cassatt’s 1908 painting, Young Mother and Two Children. It was asserted that President and Mrs. Bush sent out some 1.5 million Christmas cards.
In 2013, President Obama approved a unique and orginial Christmas card – a pop-up card. When opened, the White House would pop up into 3D with two upright silhouettes of the family’s dogs, Bo and Sunny. The card featured signatures from all four human Obamas, two mini-paw prints, and a message that read, “As we gather around this season, may the warmth and joy of the holidays fill your home.”
Through the Years: White House Christmas Cards Gallery
Greeting Cards – General Facts
The following facts about greeting cards comes from the Greeting Card Association:
- Americans purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards each year. Annual retail sales of greeting cards are estimated between $7 and $8 billion.
- The most popular Everyday card-sending occasion by far is Birthday, followed by a number of secondary occasions that include Sympathy, Thank You, Wedding, Thinking of You, Get Well, New Baby and Congratulations.
- The most popular Seasonal cards are Christmas cards, with some 1.6 billion units purchased (including boxed cards). This is followed by cards for Valentine’s Day (145 million units, not including classroom valentines), Mother’s Day (133 million units), Father’s Day (90 million units), Graduation (67 million units), Easter (57 million units), Halloween (21 million units), Thanksgiving (15 million units) and St. Patrick’s Day (7 million units).
- Women purchase an estimated 80% of all greeting cards. Women spend more time choosing a card than men, and are more likely to buy several cards at once.
Brown, Ellen, F. “Christmas, Inc.: A Brief History of the Holiday Card,” JSTOR, December 20, 2015.
Grafton, Samuel. “Holly Leaf and Copper Plate,” The North American Review 226, no. 6 (Dec., 1928), pp. 660-664.
Harris, Moira F. “Season’s Greetings from Minnesota,” Minnesota History 62, no. 8 (Winter 2011-2012), pp. 304-314.
New York Historical Society, “Louis Prang, Father of the American Christmas Card, December 19, 2012.
“Season’s Greetings,” The White House.
Greeting Card Association