The History of Christmas Cards

How Old are Christmas Cards?

People have been sending Christmas cards for as long as anyone can remember. They’re a vital part of any Christmas: they keep us in touch with distant relatives, they allow us to send small gifts to people (like money or gift cards), and they’re fun to fill out and send.

But why did we start sending Christmas cards in the first place? And how did they become so popular? Let’s find out.

When Were Christmas Cards Invented?

There is no definitive answer as to when Christmas cardswere invented. The very first that we know of was sent to James I of England by a man named Michael Maier, a German physician. It was discovered by a clerk at the Scottish Record Office (James I was also, officially, James VI of Scotland and had lived in Scotland prior to his accession to the English throne).

The card contained a greeting that, while old-fashioned, isn’t entirely unusual for a Christmas card. On the card was written…

“A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord,in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612.”

The text was laid out in the shape of a rose.

As for whether this card represented the ‘invention’ of Christmas cards, it’s impossible to say. It’s highly likely that there were other cards or missives of some kind sent for Christmas day—but none have been found.

But what is clear is that this card represented the inspiration for our modern cards. It contained a greeting to a friend, and a religious message. The text was laid out in the shape of a rose, too; the text on today’s cards isn’t, but they do have decorative designs.

What Is the History of Christmas Cards?

For more than 200 years, the only examples of Christmas cards were ones like these. They were made and addressed to individuals, by individuals. Today’s cards therefore represent an ancient historical tradition—but when did cards go from individually written greetings to the kind we see today?

Unlike other traditions, it’s actually clear exactly when this change occurred. It was in 1843. The modern, mass-produced Christmas card was invented in that year by Sir Henry Cole. The man was heavily involved in the creation of the world’s first postal system in England—he is at least partially credited for the invention of the first stamp, the Penny Black.

Sir Henry Cole commissioned his friend John Calcott Horsley to draw a friendly, welcoming design that would be mass-printed and sent like a postcard. It featured a merry scene of a family around a table, with a banner stating ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’.

When Did Christmas Cards Become Popular?

These first mass-produced Christmas cards only sold in what we would think are quite low numbers. Henry had 2,050 cards printed in total,each of which were sold for a shilling each. So how did Christmas cards become popular after first being so niche?

In part, it was when mailing things became accessible to everyone (not just the upper classes). People with cash to spare had been sending one another letters for centuries beforehand. Britain’s Post Office was formally established in 1660, and was originally the reserve of the well-off.

It was only with the standardisation of posting costs that regular people were able to send letters, cards and more through the mail. That happened along with the invention of prepaid stamps in 1840. People were suddenly able to send one another letters for the cost of just a penny.

It was in 1843 that the first mass produced Christmas cards were made to take advantage of this new system.

Why Did Christmas Cards Become Popular?

Cards from this period didn’t tend to be religious in nature. Instead, they were fun or silly. They often had an emphasis on spring, as if to remind people that it was just around the corner. They were decorated with flowers, fairies and anthropomorphic animals.

Like modern fashions, Christmas cards became more and more popular because more and more people wanted to join in. Not only that, but the feeling of receiving but not sending Christmas cards isn’t a good one! This encouraged people to join in, and before long, everybody was doing it.

This was helped along by the Royal Family themselves. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert married in 1840. Albert was German, and brought with him Christmas traditions (in particular, he popularised Christmas trees for the first time).

The Royal Family also commissioned their own Christmas cards, which they would send to friends and relatives. They would have portraits on the front, either to show the happy Royal Family enjoying Christmas, or make reference to events of that year.

Crackers were invented in the 1840s too, inspired by French bon bons that used to be wrapped in paper. Believe it or not, but even the earliest crackers contained jokes and tiny toys like today’s crackers do.

Christmas Cards Around the World

Until the late 1800s, Christmas cards were a purely European fascination. But in 1874, Louis Prang began printing and selling cards in the U.S. market. Born in what was then Prussia, and what today is Poland, Prang had set up a lithographic printers’ shop after moving to the United States. His popular designs ensured that five million Christmas cards or more were sold and sent each year in the 1880s.

Individual printers like Louis Prang and Sir Henry Cole were the main manufacturers of cards to begin with. But with the turn of the century, big businesses for stationery, mail and more began to corner the market. One of these was Hallmark, established by Joyce and Rollie Hall in 1913. Their big break came during the First World War, when people wanted to send cards to the soldiers out on the front line.

Christmas cards haven’t ever been out of fashion. But what’s been on them has changed with the fashions since then. Patriotic cards, for example, were all the rage throughout each of the World Wars.

As humour has evolved, the humour of Christmas cards has evolved too. Early Christmas cards were more sentimental than funny, but the appetite for funny cards—like funny birthday cards—has grown.

Christmas Cards Today

Ever since then, Christmas cards have remained popular. Different kinds of Christmas cards have included official ones produced by Royal Families and presidents across the world, charity cards, cards produced for employees at a business, and more. But what about the future of cards?

Is There a Future for Christmas Cards?

There’s no reason to suggest that Christmas cards are on the way out. As technology has changed so have Christmas Cards with online ordering making getting hold of cards even easier and modern sites allowing your own photographs to be used on the front of cards.

As for the style of future cards, how might that change? What we do know is that luxury finishes and photographic cards are continuing to gain in popularity while fine art and religious images still retain an important share of the market.

So, is there a future for Christmas cards? The answer is a resounding yes!

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