Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Every Christmas Card I Write...

Card from CCRS Grade 7A, 1923
The Alice contains many treasures, but if I had to pick a favorite, it just might be the greeting card collection. Assembled in nine enormous albums are the greeting cards that Alice and William Miner received between 1909 and 1925. There are Easter cards and Thanksgiving cards, but most of them are Christmas cards. This delightful collection gives us a window into the popular styles and themes of holiday cards in the early twentieth century. In addition, there is an album dedicated to the handmade cards and letters that the Miners received from students at Chazy Central Rural School in the 1920s. The museum archives also holds a number of examples of the elaborate Christmas cards that the Miners sent from Heart’s Delight Farm each year. The effort that Alice and William put into preserving these cards shows how much they valued these expressions of good wishes.

Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but we can trace their origins to holiday customs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Tradesmen sent new year’s greetings to their customers, and it was traditional to send holiday letters to family and friends at this time—by the 1830s it was possible to buy decorative stationery just for this purpose. Schoolboys made “Christmas pieces” on special paper printed with holiday borders to demonstrate their penmanship skills to their parents and visitors to their schools. Valentine’s Day cards also were common by the 1830s, and indeed many early Christmas cards simply reproduced the floral motifs of Valentine’s greetings.

The first Christmas card combined expressions of
holiday cheer with images of charitable giving.
Though it’s generally difficult to place a precise date on ephemeral holiday traditions, historians are fairly confident in saying that the first commercially produced Christmas card was made in London in 1843. In that year Henry Cole (who had played an important role in introducing the penny post to England in 1840) commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card, which was lithographically printed and then hand-colored by professional colorist William Mason. The cards (which were actually unfolded sheets of paper) sold for one shilling each—quite expensive by 1840s standards—but the idea quickly caught on.

Louis Prang (1824-1909)
The Christmas card tradition spread to the United States by the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that they became really popular. This was due almost entirely to the work of Louis Prang, “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Prang was born in Breslau, Silesia (now Poland) and learned the trade of printing and dyeing fabrics from his father, a textile manufacturer. In 1850, he immigrated to the United States and established a business in Boston, printing business cards, advertisements, and other ephemera. 

Prang returned to Europe in 1864 to study the newest techniques in printing, and came back to the U.S. prepared to introduce chromolithography. While lithographs were printed in black and white and had to be colored by hand (like Cole’s Christmas card), chromolithography produced a full-color image. This was a difficult and labor-intensive process, and Prang considered his chromolithographs to be true works of art. 

Elihu Vedder’s prize-winning card, 1881,
from the collection of the New-York
Historical Society
Prang produced his first Christmas cards in 1875, and they were an immediate success. Between 1880 and 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of up to $1000 to the first place winner. Esteemed artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge served as judges. Prang’s cards, with their meticulous printing techniques and aura of fine art, dominated the Christmas card market until the 1890s, when inexpensive postcards from Germany began flooding the American market. Prang got out of the card business and focused on producing art supplies and educational materials, but his designs set the standards for Christmas cards well into the 20th century.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s online exhibit, American History Through Christmas Cards, has a wonderful selection of 19th and 20th century cards that you can browse.

Information about Louis Prang comes from the New-York Historical Society Library’s blog.

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