Christmas cards began, as many traditions do, in Victorian England. In the early 1840s John Colcott Horsley printed what we would commonly call a post card today for his friend, Sir Henry Cole, who had the idea for sending his friends a greeting wishing them a Happy Christmas.
The idea took off while Europe clamored for them every holiday season as printing technology improved things lagged in America, mostly due to the American Civil War.
But once the war was over – and Christmas was declared a holiday in 1870 – conditions were ripe for acceptance in the United States for sending Christmas cards. After all, the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 making faster mail service possible and the incredible, ground breaking printing capabilities of printer Louis Prang transformed the post card size European Christmas card to gifts of art sent through the mail.
Prang was born in Europe himself, and learned the early color mixing techniques of color printing famous for the time. He arrived in Boston in 1850 where he worked first as an engraver for a magazine known as Gleason’s Pictorial before establishing his own print shop that flourished during the civil war years by printing war maps, sheet music covers and lithographic portraits of Union Soldiers.
As an anxious art enthusiast Prang traveled back to Europe at one point to learn the art of chromolithography, a technology that in effect allowed him to make duplicates of fine art from the masters of Europe, and thus bring fine art to the masses inexpensively. Made with zinc plates in up to 30 colors Prang’s duplicates had an oil-like quality that made his art suitable for framing and thanks to their relative cost effectiveness they sold very, very well.
In 1873 while attending a printing exposition in Vienna he was presented with the idea of making an artful Christmas card, elevating the already popular tradition in Europe to a new level. He liked the idea and by Christmas 1874 Prang’s designs started to catch on – not as Christmas cards, but as art. Costing as much as 25 dollars many sent the Prang holiday designs as gifts.
Unique to Prang’s Christmas art was new verse written by well-known poets of the time, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
By the 1880s Prang expanded the popularity of his Christmas cards by sponsoring art competitions for new design. The first year he advertised large cash prizes and was rewarded with 800 entries, thus making his Christmas card offerings more unique than ever. The following year he nearly doubled that with 1500 entries.
During the 1880s Prang’s factories put out more than 5 million Christmas cards a year and were noted for offering stable, suitable employment especially for women, a real rarity of the times.
By the 1890s, cheap knock-offs were imported from places such as Germany and Prang’s offerings began to diminish in popularity as the American cultural expansion of Christmas exploded into different areas of décor and tradition.
But the habit and routine of Christmas cards was set, and even a 100 years after Prang first brought his Christmas cards to market the U.S. postal service recognized him as the pioneer of the American Christmas card.
Today Prang’s cards are as collectible as ever and the tradition of sending Christmas cards, despite recent trends in online greetings, remains as popular as ever.