Have you ever wondered where the tradition of mailing Christmas cards originated? The answer is quite interesting and multi-tiered! Before we dive into the full history lesson, we organized the most frequently asked questions upfront for quick and easy answers.
Who invented the Christmas card? Sir Henry Cole in 1843. (read more)
Which country sent the first Christmas cards? The United Kingdom.
What did the first Christmas card look like? The first Christmas card featured three panels of imagery. The central panel celebrated a traditional dinner party scene with people drinking wine. The two exterior panels showcased acts of kindness such as helping the poor. Both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” were spelled out on the card. (read more)
While it might feel like Christmas cards have been around forever, the history of Christmas cards is actually quite short! Well, it’s short by historical standards, having started only a little over 175 years ago. That said, each generation’s love of the tradition has allowed it to evolve quickly over time and put a unique spin on every year of design.
The first “real” Christmas card was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole, a dedicated civil-servant and scholar in the United Kingdom. Sir Cole had just worked to pass a reform that lowered the cost of postage to a single penny (the “penny post”) to encourage British citizens of all walks of life to use the postal system. However, he needed to find a way to get more people using the mail to help finance the change.
Now you may be wondering, isn't that what Hallmark did with Valentine’s Day? Did he dream this up to make money? In this case, Sir Cole had a secondary motivation! At the same time as he helped launch the penny post, Victorian society was fully embracing a Christmas mania, which included a renaissance of traditions of banquets, parties, and charities. Many of the Christmas traditions we know and love today like caroling and feasting emerged from Victorian England at this time.
One important Christmas tradition included writing a long, personal letter and paying a visit to friends and acquaintances to wish them a cheerful holiday season. In a rapidly growing society, this left almost no time to get work done, and even the most tenacious extroverts were exhausted. Sir Cole thought he could solve both of his problems with the introduction of a beautifully decorated Christmas card to replace the long letter.
Thus, in 1843, the same year in which Charles Dickens published and popularized the Victorian holiday staple A Christmas Carol, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the design of a Christmas card from Mr. John Calcott Horsley. In his notes, he boasted that they printed almost 1000 copies sold at a shilling per piece and credited the Christmas card’s popularity with increasing absolute mail volume by 11.5 million pieces in 1846.
Cranberry Garden by Alethea and Ruth
The first Christmas card took advantage of lithographic printing, where the use of hand-colored plates gave a generally monochromatic, etched effect. It featured a central banquet scene (which was considered a bit controversial because the children at the table were served wine) with side panels illustrating scenes of acts of charity, which were central to the Dickensian Victorian Christmas narrative: there would be no Ebenezer Scrooge at this Christmas party.
Image Source: First Christmas Card
What is considered to be the second Christmas card, designed by William Maw Egley and sent in 1848, also has eight different panels that show vignettes of different Christmas activities. A banquet is still the central scene, but you can also see a Punch and Judy show, ice skating, and more acts of charity.
These designs are loosely based on the artwork that Victorians liked to have at the top of the custom note paper for personal correspondence, most of which had a botanical theme or trim and then played out a locational scene. Likewise, throughout the early history of the Christmas card, banquets and toasts are a common theme, usually with a figure making eye contact with the recipient. The idea was that they were conveying a toast of goodwill to the absent party.
Image Source: Second Christmas card, designed by William Egley
In the 1850s, the popularity of Christmas cards was in full swing, although printers still thought they were a trend that might fall out of vogue and weren’t devoting much time or energy to sourcing novel artwork for them. However, by 1860, Christmas cards had supplanted another tradition, the Happy New Year card, Valentine’s Day cards fell out of fashion (for non-romantic friends), and Christmas cards became the primary way to send a quick correspondence to acquaintances throughout the year, just like it does today.
Marcus Ward was the first stationer in the history of Christmas cards to focus primarily on the medium. He also brought on two of the most talented and prolific designers of the era to continue pushing the elevated art of the card forward: Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.
Kate Greenaway is credited with introducing the focus on children’s portraits in Christmas cards, painting standalone, idyllic images of children dressed in festive holiday garb. If you’re really looking for a unique family photo style this year, you may want to emulate the mop caps, muffs, and smocks popularized in Victorian Christmas cards! If you’re looking for something a little more modern, we have some great holiday outfit tips.
Other important trends throughout the 1860s and 1870s were the use of intricate lettering hidden in botanicals or other elements of the Christmas scene as opposed to a standalone message, the inclusion of sachets in cards, and the expansion of Christmas card formats to include four-to-eight-page booklets (to better share family news), larger-sized cards (the first Christmas cards were only 5” x 3” or smaller), and postcards.
Ornate Peace by Paper Dahlia
If you’re interested in our modern take on these traditions, we encourage you to take a look at our 2021 Booklette™ card collection and shop botanical Christmas card designs.
Likewise, more postal reforms in the 1870s made it cheaper for British citizens to send specialty envelopes, so a trend of matching illustrated envelopes took hold (we love coordinating envelopes too!).
Finally, in the 1880s and 90s, cards began to explore trends of contrast and multiple elements. Many cards featured a black background to allow bright colors to pop, a trend that persisted until about 1889. In addition, Victorians started using belly bands of bows to add a festive touch to their mailings and add contrast to the color of the card contained inside.
As you can see from our examples above, many of these styles and formats remain popular today for the same reasons that Victorian Englanders embraced them. Learn more about some of our most popular luxe holiday card accessories and see what Minted's community of independent artists has designed for this season.
Seasonal Update by Jessie Steury
While some Christmas cards were imported to the U.S. starting in the 1850s, they weren’t popularized until the 1870s and 1880s. One issue to adoption was that the U.S. didn’t have a uniform postal rate until 1883, so it was quite expensive to send mail long distances. The other hurdle was that there were no domestic producers excited about the medium. Most printers were content to swap out some heart motifs with some holly or a robin on a Valentine and call it a day.
However, in 1873, Louis Prang, known now as the “father of the American Christmas card”, started producing holiday cards out of his factory in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Prang was notable not only for this but because he was a vehement supporter of the arts and ensuring access to artwork to all. He was convinced the Christmas card would be the ideal vehicle to connect the American public with top illustrators and designers and to continue supporting and popularizing their work. Over a century later, this sentiment is echoed in Minted's mission, bringing the most unique and fresh designs, sourced from artists around the world, to festive Christmas cards.
Cadeau by Carrie ONeal
A man truly before his time, Prang hosted the first-ever design challenge for Christmas cards in 1880 (learn more about Minted’s modern design challenges). It drew a significant amount of attention not only because he had enlisted a jury of famous art critics, architects, and artists to award the prizes, but because he also insisted that there be a public or popular vote to select the winners. The first competition drew almost 800 entries, which is quite remarkable given there was no way to send a challenge solicitation via email at that time. Even more remarkable was that most of the entrants were women, including many prize winners over the next four years of contests.
Winners in the contests had their works displayed in the Doll & Richards art gallery in Boston and the American Art Gallery in New York, elevating the art form of Christmas cards and solidifying their place as holiday treasures to be shared, kept, and collected.
Interestingly enough, Prang’s competitions in the United States generated such a buzz that major print houses in Europe sought to copy the model. Hildesheimer & Faulkner ran the first English competition in the history of Christmas cards in 1882, where Alice Havers won £5000 for her charming “A Dream of Patience” design. Likewise, Marcus Ward’s firm commissioned a series of designs from artists at Britain’s Royal Academy in 1883 that were widely publicized and sold throughout the nation.
Image source: Second prize winner from Prang’s 1881 contest, Good Saint
Santa by Lizbeth B. Humphrey
Unfortunately, Christmas cards did fall out of favor with the American public in the 1890s for two major reasons. First, German lithographers started exporting much cheaper Christmas postcards at that time, as they did not bear the expense of the major art competitions or premium details. Second, a new American trend of “gimcracks” rose in popularity. A “gimcrack”, also known as a “doodad” or “geegaw”, was an impractical tchotchke like cheap costume jewelry or a figurine that could be sent to a friend or relative as a token of Christmas wishes. While these became the precursor for modern gifting culture, at the time they were considered a similar expense and interchangeable with the Christmas card itself.
Image Source: A Dream of Patience by Alice Havers
While the history of Christmas cards had a brief hiatus in the 1890s and early 1900s, they saw a new life with the popularization of photography and the development of offset printing.
While photographic technology had been around since 1839, it still required high-investment, commercial equipment, and development required that you carry heavy plates and toxic chemicals around. In 1901, Kodak introduced its first mass-market camera, the “Brownie”, and the Christmas card proved to be the perfect vehicle to share the beloved portraits. While still not commonplace, examples of photo cards show up as early as 1911, often accompanied by a personal letter or newsletter update, like we see today. We see a modern interpretation of the family newsletter in Minted's unique back-of-card and interior designs.
Very Merrily by Susan Moyal
Likewise, in 1912, a new technique called “offset” printing had started to take off. Instead of the heavy metal plates previously used, printers used rubber rollers on their presses to develop sharper, more colorfully saturated designs. A little-known company founded by the Hall brothers (today known as Hallmark) decided to try its hand at printing colorful holiday cards in 1915, which fueled demand for Christmas cards well into the 1950s. These cards came back in style as customers became frustrated with the lack of space on the postcard format that was available, and the new designs provided cheer and an image of homefront peace that was much needed during the First World War.
As with the cards of the 19th century, the American public was particularly excited by Christmas cards that celebrated the work of great artists, with Hallmark and its competitors commissioning designs from artists as diverse as Salvador Dalí and Norman Rockwell. Norman Rockwell’s ubiquitous style of Americana was a major popular success, and the cards are still reprinted today in limited release. Harkening back to their Victorian counterparts, the Christmas cards of the 1940s and 50s represented idyllic banquet scenes and featured children (often preparing for their encounter with Saint Nick).
Image Source A typical Hallmark card from the late 1910s era
In the 1960s, the personalization of Christmas cards finally became the norm, as printing techniques evolved enough to allow card authors to fill in their own last name or change the greeting. It was also at this time that color photography started to be more commercially available, and Kodak prints could be made en masse, allowing customers to include an updated family photo with their card. With mobility rates still at a post-war high, it was all the more important to be able to reach a now distant family member or a friend with an updated image.
Unsurprisingly, the 1980s continued this photo trend but also ushered in an increase in metallic foil finishes and more glitter-forward designs in line with the glitzy fashion trends of the day. Minted's unique hand-pressed foil designs continue this tradition, in a unique way, with colors like red, gold and bronze.
The desire for customization and personalization has only increased with the advent of digital technology from the 1990s through today, but the purpose of the holiday card itself has changed. With social media, most people are up to date on the specifics of daily life for even the most distant of friends. However, the sentimental and emotional importance of the Christmas card continues to play out in national discourse. In fact, many argue that the Christmas card has found a renewed place of importance because the overall volume of mail received by any one person has declined. It is an opportunity to be special, to be personal, and to put a little more effort into communication than normal, driving another level of tangible connection.
If you are planning to send a holiday greeting this year, we recommend getting it in the mail before December 16, which was the USPS’s expected busiest day of the year in 2019. According to their estimates, they shipped nearly 2.5 billion pieces of first-class mail (which includes holiday cards) during that week!
Who knows? The days of lining cards along the mantel and preciously preserving them may continue on forever! What is known, however, is that this next generation of artists is continually finding new and interesting ways to capture family life and the spirit of Christmas today, which will be sure to impact the future history of Christmas cards to come.
P.S. If you’re interested in where we think Christmas cards are going, check out our article on the trends we're seeing for holiday cards!
Monochrome by AK Graphics