Dec 14, 2016 | by Ellen Dial
Christmas cards, remember those? Used to be a big deal, right? Used to get scads of them every season – looked forward to getting them. At one point, I think I was getting 40 cards or more every year. I’d send out as many!
I’d take time in selecting the cards. Picking out something gorgeous for my serious friends and family – something silly for well, my more silly friends and family. I’d take time to write little note or some nice greeting. Made sure the writing inside and out was nice and legible. Even used Christmas stamps!
The cards were definitely a thing. A big thing.
Now? Lucky to get, oh like, eight? I send a couple three out. Some years, I’ve even forgotten to pick up stamps, so there’d they sit! For weeks. Neglected and sad. Pathetic.
According to my research, the Christmas card died in 2014. The demise blamed upon social media. Blame the tweets and the you tubes! Damn the interwebs! I won’t even mention the snap chats, since I have no clue what that even is.
We’ve gotten lazy, no more cards. Just our iPads and retweeting.
So, when did this dying tradition start? Didn’t people always send them out? Grab some egg nog and let’s go on a sleigh ride over the river and through a brief history of the Christmas card.
Vintage Christmas | The Time Before, or the Christmas Letter
Hopefully not one of THOSE Christmas letters, you know the ones, we’ve all gotten them: documenting jail time, the gross details of Aunt DooDoo’s last bout of diverticulitis, Sasquatch sightings and unfortunate Presidential votes cast.
Probably not so much, they tended to be a bit more personal, sentimental and sweet. A chance to connect with friends and family near and far. Share important events and the warmth of the season. Much thought went into them, they were quite individual. The sender might have even decorated the margins with little sketches and bon mots.
They were frequently several pages long.
Such a nice tradition, to be sure. The only caveat being, paper, ink and postage were pretty costly. Only those with some disposable income could partake. Leaving those without behind and without a way to send season’s greetings. Add to that, one would have to have a fair amount of leisure time to crank out a bunch of letters.
So what, you may ask, happened and when?
Vintage Christmas | The Brits Started It!
In the distant past, back when Queen Victoria was still around, a British noble by the name of Lord Henry Cole started the card thing, the year was 1843. So, this most lordly of Lords was just a) too busy doing whatever it was Lords did to bust out meaningful letters, and b) he would have a metric tonne to write, since he was simply so very popular! This guy was a 19th century A-lister and got hundreds of Christmas letters, and back in the Victorian era, it was incredibly rude not to respond to every letter you received. What’s 19th century party person to do?
Well, Lord Cole went to his artist buddy JC Hoarsley and had some artwork created, then dropped in on his friendly neighborhood printer and had colorful triptych cards made. These cards had a blank slot for the recipient’s name and wished them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Easy peasy. Social obligation met.
Pretty snazzy, right?
Staid and proper Victorians were outraged! How impersonal. How crass. Plus, the artwork showed young children drinking wine with their adult family members – completely offending those who were following the growing temperance movement. Horrifying!
There was a fair amount of kerfuffle, to be sure. Articles published. Strongly worded letters sent.
But, eventually, the idea caught on. In fact, articles were written about Christmas cards, design contests held and they were collected with the same passion a Victorian gentleman might’ve collected dead butterflies! These cards copied Lord Cole’s card, were a bit smaller, only cost about eight cents each AND the popular penny post made the whole thing doable for the masses. So for a mere nine cents you could send off colorful season’s greetings to your dear auntie in Leeds. The cards came in fancier forms as well, for those with a healthier bottom line.
True fact, Americans ordered their cards throughout much the 19th century from England. We just hadn’t jumped on the Christmas card printing band wagon just yet. They were very dear and only those in the middle class and up could participate.
Vintage Christmas | Cards, American Style
Since this was such an easy way to share Christmas cheer, of course we thought “as Americans, we can do this better and cheaper!”, or something along those lines.
The first American “commercial” cards were accredited to the handsome and epically bearded Louis Prang in the 1870’s. They were beautiful and simple, with a brief “Merry Christmas” greeting and pictures of cherubs, animals or nature scenes. Images that could occur just about any time of year. They were small and didn’t have a great deal of room to write any kind of lengthy message.
In the early, early 20th century, 1915 to be precise, the Hall Brothers went to work.
The Halls began to produce the first widely available, mass produced cards from their postcard printing factory in Kansas City. These cards came in various sizes. They were colorful and had several different greeting styles: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings. The colorful artwork was beautifully simple, not unlike Mr. Prang’s. Flowers, nature scenes and animals. The most popular card featured three chubby cherubs replete with holly crowns and a simple “Merry Christmas” emblazoned across the front – this card is still available today. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were thrown in for good measure, each flower and plant sending a subtle message of prosperity, health and love. Remember, there’s a whole language to flowers, one we don’t speak now, but they surely did. These cards were printed in the “book” fashion, art on the front, two blank or nearly blank pages inside, giving the sender room to write a nice message. Sweet!
Over the next few decades, the Christmas card really took off. The newly renamed Hallmark card company was producing thousands upon thousands of cards. The industry exploded and smaller producers got into the game. Cards got more elaborate.
In the early 1960’s, Christmas stamps started. You could totally Christmas up your cards! It also became popular for celebrities to create a special card, FLOTUS Jackie Kennedy created two very beautiful cards, I’ve included my favorite.
Vintage Christmas | The Here and Now
Sadly, the tradition of Christmas cards has fallen along the wayside. As I mentioned earlier, the year 2014 was given as the year they, well, kinda died.
We’re just too very busy to be bothered- funny, they were created for busy people. Oh, the irony! The commercialization of the holidays has made it over the top stressful for many. It’s getting harder to find cards. When one does, they are often garish and cheaply made. Some are downright rude. Plus, it costs almost 50 cents each to send them – a long way from the penny post.
The joy of getting a physical card has been replaced with the ping of your text notification or a mass message to all 1300 of your Facebook friends.
Go out, find a nice box of cards and send them off to those people who truly mean something to you. Whether it’s 30 people or five, they will delight in receiving them.
Thanks to: Wikipedia.com, smithsonianmag.org, marketwatch.com, mentalfloss.com, whychristmas.com and to those who post their images freely on the internet.