With Christmas quickly approaching, it’s the perfect time to learn about the history of Christmas cards. Who would have guessed that the first Christmas card ever sent by mail would spark a tradition that is still going strong over 175 years later!
Sending Christmas cards has become an integral part of Christmas, just like making snowmen, spending time with loved ones, hanging ornaments on the tree, wrapping presents, baking homemade cookies and searching the skies on Christmas Eve for Santa and his reindeer.
You might be surprised to learn that while we now send 1.6 billion Christmas cards annually in the United States, they weren’t always that popular.
Sir Henry Cole and the Uniform Penny Post
Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is credited with inventing the first Christmas card in 1843.
In addition to founding the V&A Museum, Sir Henry Cole was also instrumental in helping Rowland Hill reform the British Postal System.
Before this reform, sending letters was very costly. The postage cost was calculated by distance travelled, and number of pages included.
People would even “cross-write” their letters to save money. These crossed letters contained two sets of writing, written perpendicularly to each other, on top of each other on the same page.
When the Uniform Penny Post was announced, it simplified the system to charging only by weight. Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee this postal system change. Sir Henry Cole was by his side, as his assistant.
The history of Christmas cards
This change in the postal system encouraged people to send letters more often. Since Sir Henry Cole was involved in this improvement of the British post, this surge in mail thrilled him!
However, it did cause a problem – Sir Henry Cole was so popular he couldn’t keep up with the volume of Christmas letters he was receiving.
It was considered impolite not to reply to letters, so he felt obligated to respond. However, handwriting responses to all the mail he received would take far too long.
Sir Henry Cole came up with a great idea – inventing a replicable Christmas card that could be personalized.
He asked his artist friend John Callcott Horsley to make an illustration for him with a space to write in the name of each recipient.
The first Christmas card
John Callcott Horsley illustrated a triptych (a three panel picture) for the first Christmas card.
The center panel depicted three generations of Sir Henry Cole’s family enjoying a holiday feast and raising their glasses for a toast.
The side panels depicted people charitably giving to the poor. The left side showed giving food, and the right side showed giving clothing.
All three panels of the triptych were connected by branches and vines with Christmas greenery on them. The top of the drawing had a space to write the recipient’s name and the bottom had a space to write the sender’s name.
J.C. Horsley even signed his work by drawing a tiny cartoon-like self portrait and the words “Xmasse 1843” in the bottom right corner of the card.
The publishing house (Summerly’s Home Treasury Office, 12 Old Bond Street, London) was written on the bottom right corner of the Christmas card.
Sir Henry Cole had a thousand copies of the card printed. They were offered at a shilling a piece, which was considered expensive at the time.
Commercial Christmas cards didn’t become popular until the 1870s, so Sir Henry Cole was ahead of his time when he created the first Christmas card.
Facts about Christmas cards
Add to your knowledge of the first Christmas card by checking out these Christmas card facts below. Some may surprise you!
- 1.6 billion Christmas cards are sent every year in the United States.
- In 2001, one of the first Christmas cards made by Sir Henry Cole sold at an auction for 22,500 pounds, which is the equivalent of about 30,000 dollars!
- Hallmark made their first Christmas card in 1915, five years after the company opened in 1910.
- The first commercial Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in 1843.
- Hallmark was the first to create a folded card. People were complaining that there wasn’t enough space to write their own messages, so Hallmark doubled the writing space and became a go-to Christmas card brand.
Louis Prang & the history of Christmas cards in America
In Boston, in 1856, Louis Prang and his partner Julius Mayer created the company Prang and Mayer to create lithographs.
Louis Prang bought out his partner in 1860 and and renamed the business L. Prang & Company.
When the company fell on hard times, he branched out from his normal lithographs and also sold maps of different Civil War battle locations.
Prang took his family and went to Europe in 1864 to study chromolithography. When he returned to Boston, he began to make color lithographs.
While his early attempts were not successful, he later achieved great success and opened additional offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago. He also had agents in London, Melbourne, and Berlin.
In 1873 his London agent suggested turning one of his floral lithographs into a Christmas card. Prang had his agent test the Christmas cards in London.
When they proved successful, Prang introduced them to the US market in 1875 as the first Christmas cards in America. Louis Prang is considered the “father of American Christmas cards”.
When the Hall brothers created Hallmark in 1910 and started selling Christmas cards in 1915, the industry exploded with popularity!
If you found the evolution of Christmas Cards interesting, make sure to check out our post talking about how Valentine’s Day cards became one of the symbols of Valentine’s Day. Their history is just as fascinating!
Christmas card facts
Did you enjoy learning those facts about Christmas cards? Here’s some more trivia for you to enjoy!
- Christmas cards came to America in 1875 through Louis Prang’s lithography business.
- There’s an awards ceremony for Christmas cards held every May at the National Stationary Show. They hand out “Louies”, named for Louis Prang, which are the Christmas card equivalent of the Oscars!
- The bestselling Christmas card ever (according to Hallmark) is one of three angels with two praying, and the third looking up at the reader. It made it’s debut in 1977 and to date has sold 34 million copies.
- In San Francisco during the year 1975, Werner Erhard set the world record for most Christmas cards sent in a single year. He sent an astounding 62,824 Christmas cards!
- The first Christmas stamp issued in the United States made it’s debut in 1962. In the UK, their first Christmas stamp appeared in 1966.
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Christmas Card Day
Even though the first Christmas card was sent almost 200 years ago, the tradition is still alive and well today!
Even if you don’t mail your Christmas cards on that day, it still serves as a good reminder to start thinking of how you’re going to be doing your Christmas cards that year!
Christmas themed national days
If you enjoyed learning these facts about Christmas cards, you’ll be excited to know there are actually several national days of the year dedicated to other symbols of Christmas!
National days of the year are a fun way to celebrate odd and unusual foods, animals and items that you come into contact with. Be sure to check out my national day’s guide for more fun days to celebrate.
Here are some of our favorite Christmas themed national days:
- National Poinsettia Day – Check out this post for ways to celebrate this Christmas plant and to learn interesting poinsettia facts.
- Gingerbread Cookie Day – Turn on your ovens and get ready to bake the homemade gingerbread cookie recipe in this post while learning about the history of gingerbread.
- National Candy Cane Day – Learn more about candy canes, and check out our recipe for a candy cane cream cheese spread.
- Santa’s List Day – Find out if if you’re on the naughty or nice list! Also, don’t forget to call the official Santa phone number to let him know what’s on your list this year.
- Christmas Tree Day – Learn how to make a DIY alphabet block Christmas tree to celebrate this day!
Christmas card FAQs and review
Here are some of our most frequent asked questions about the history of Christmas cards, and the first Christmas card.
- What was the first Christmas card? The first Christmas card was a three panel illustration depicting family and charity with a space to write the recipient and sender’s names.
- Who invented the first Christmas card? Sir Henry Cole invented the first Christmas card and John Callcott Horsley illustrated it.
- What country started Christmas cards? England was the country to start the tradition of sending Christmas cards.
- When was the 1st Christmas card sent? The first Christmas card was sent in 1843.
- When did Hallmark first introduce Christmas cards? Hallmark introduced Christmas cards in 1915, five years after the company was founded in 1910.
- Why was the first Christmas card so controversial? In the first Christmas card, the Cole family was drinking wine – one of the children was even taking a sip! The depiction of wine consumption was somewhat controversial in early days.
- Do they have to be “Christmas” cards? You can send any holiday card you’d like! If Christmas isn’t your holiday, feel free to send a card for any of the holidays you celebrate, or even a seasons greetings card.
Pin this post on the first Christmas card for later
Would you like a reminder of this post on the history of Christmas cards? Just pin this image to one of your Christmas boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.
You can also watch our Christmas quotes video on YouTube to get some inspiration for the Christmas messages for your Christmas cards.
About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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