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Christmas Cards - A Brief History

Updated on October 17, 2014

Don't You Love Christmas Cards?

The sending of Christmas cards has been a Christmas tradition for more than 150 years! Each year, in countries all over the world, people buy or create beautiful Christmas cards to send to their friends and family as a way to share their holiday spirit.

I know that I love to receive Christmas cards! To me, their arrival signals the true beginning of the Christmas holiday season.

Most people send these holiday greetings without knowing the history behind them. So, for their benefit and yours, here is a brief overview of the history of Christmas cards!

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Printed Christmas Cards
Printed Christmas Cards

Printed Christmas Cards

Who Started the Christmas Card Tradition?

Christmas cards didn't appear on the scene until 1843.

Stories differ on whether the English gentleman Sir Henry Cole was too injured, too busy or just too lazy to send out the then-traditional personal and handwritten traditional Christmas greetings, but it is agreed that in 1843 Sir Cole hired John Calcott Horsely, a British artist, to design the first known Christmas card.

This card featured a family of adults and children, surrounded by sprigs of holly and ivy, hugging each other and raising their glasses in a Christmas toast.

This drawing created somewhat of a scandal amongst the Victorians, as the site of children holding wine glasses was thought by some to promote drunkeness!

The hand-colored card was lithographed on stiff cardboard and 1,000 were printed and sold in various London stores. Today, only one of these cards is known to exist.

Modern Christmas Cards
Modern Christmas Cards

Modern Christmas Cards

Since 1843, Christmas cards have taken over as the primary form of Christmas greeting.

Current estimates by Hallmark indicate that 1.5 billion Christmas cards (including boxed and individual cards) are being sent out each year. They also estimate that 85% of Americans send Christmas cards each year.

Louis Prang, a German immigrant, introduced the first commercial Christmas cards to America.

In the late 1856 Prang began printing cards in his small lithographic shop near Boston. By 1881 he was producing more than five million cards per year, and is now considered to be the "father" of the greeting card industry.

J.C. Hall began selling postcards and greeting cards in 1910, but the Hallmark company did not issue its first Christmas card until 1915.

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White House Christmas Cards
White House Christmas Cards

White House Christmas Cards

Although Christmas cards became popular beginning in the later 19th century, it wasn't until 1953 when President Eisenhower issued the very first official White House Christmas card.

These cards, designed by Hallmark and sent to diplomats, government officials, Cabinet members,and Congress members, were on an ivory stock and bore an embossment of the Presidential Seal on the front, along with the words "Season's Greetings" in gold.

Inside the card, "The President and Mrs. Eisenhower extend their best wishes for Christmas and the New Year" was engraved in black.

Approximately 2,000 official cards were sent out in 1961, while more than 1.4 million cards were sent out in 2005.

Rare Christmas Cards
Rare Christmas Cards

Rare Christmas Cards

The most expensive Christmas cards to date?

That would be one of the original 1843 hand-colored cards by illustrator John Calcott Horsely, sent to his grandmother. The card sold in 2001 at a UK auction for £20,000 ($31,516USD in December 2010).

The second-most valuable Christmas card would be a 1966 pen and ink card hand-drawn by John Lennon for his manager Brian Epstein.

The inscribed message, which reads "Happy Christian Brian, from John" is thought to be Lennon's ironic reference to Epstein's Jewish Faith. The card was sold at auction in April 2000 for £5,600 (approximately $8,829USD).

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