The joy of greeting cards
Mar 24, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Spring is a busy time for my family, friends and colleagues. We have dozens of birthdays to celebrate and while a text can be a great way to convey well wishes, there’s a special joy in getting a card in the mail. Opening the mailbox and finding a colorful envelope addressed to you is a treat. (Especially when it feels like the mailman delivers more bills than anything else!) People have sent greeting cards throughout the ages. Scholars trace its origins to the ancient Chinese, who sent notes to ring in the new year. Even the early Egyptians sent scrolls for personal messages. By the 15th century greeting cards expanded to Europe, becoming part of the Valentine’s Day tradition. But the mid-1800s to early 1900s was a period of huge progress in the burgeoning greeting card industry.
In the year 1850 a German immigrant by the name of Louis Prang arrived in Boston. Louis fled from his native Germany, after the failed revolution of 1848 – a revolution which sought to unify Germany and usher in a new era of democracy. When he came ashore he brought with him years of experience with engraving and printmaking, along with a love for his fellow man. His generous spirit translated into his art, first with civic prints and maps, but then he caught wind of a trend in England.
Christmas cards became popular in England during the early 1840s. Legend has it the first card was created to help with a surprisingly modern problem. Sir Henry Cole was a busy and popular figure in his hometown. The British, in the tradition of the Chinese, sent handwritten notes to loved ones during the holidays. For someone like Sir Henry, trying to manage business alongside a frantic Christmas schedule, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. So next time you’re feeling the squeeze from your to-do list, it’s okay. Even the proper Victorians struggled with holiday expectations! Sir Henry decided the only way he could manage was to enlist the help of an artistic friend. Given that this was the era of industrialization, I’m not surprised that Sir Henry blended creativity with technology. That first year the duo made 1,000 cards and the artist (John Calcott Horsley) sold the extras. One man’s solution became the catalyst for a movement and provided inspiration for Louis Prang.
Always the romantic, Louis would imprint his cards with a rose in honor of his wife Rosa.
By the 1860s printmaking had advanced to include color and that meant the floodgates were opened. Christmas cards in full, vibrant hues could be a reality. Louis was ready to make his mark – first testing out his products in England, then selling them in the Boston area. By the 1880s his company was printing 5 million cards a year. People loved his cards because of their quality, rich colors and striking art. The beautiful designs were thanks to his army of female artisans. Louis was one of the biggest patrons of female artists and by offering steady, good-paying jobs to women in his community he changed the economic trajectory for hundreds of families. He celebrated his artists by hosting highly-publicized competitions and exhibitions. This love of art spilled over into support for art programs in education. Louis went so far as to develop teaching programs for art, influencing thousands of students along the way.
I would suspect we are still seeing the impact from his legacy today. We all stand on the shoulders of other’s past accomplishments and Louis Prang’s pioneering efforts gave female artists and the arts appreciation movement itself a strong foundation that we’re building upon all these years later. I don’t think I’ll look at a Christmas card again in quite the same way! Sadly, Louis passed away in 1909 – but there was a young man from Nebraska who was poised to carry the baton.
Thinking about collecting vintage Christmas cards? Here’s a great article to help you prepare for this adventure!
In January of 1910, Joyce Clyde Hall packed up his favorite postcards in a couple of shoeboxes and headed to the big city (Kansas City, Missouri). Starting out as a street vendor, his picture postcards quickly became a local favorite. In time his business expanded and his brother joined him to help run the day-to-day operations. A couple years into their efforts a fire destroyed everything in their warehouse. They found themselves $17,000 in debt (in today’s money that’s nearly $500,000). Undaunted, they pressed on and transitioned from postcards to Valentine’s and Christmas cards. Like Louis Prang or Sir Henry Cole before them, their workshop was a source of innovation. In 1917 they invented gift wrap, which became a runaway success. In the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, they signed a licensing deal with Walt Disney. But they weren’t just focused on their product offerings. The Hall brothers understood that there is an art to selecting the perfect card for your friend or family member. Hallmark cards were the first to be displayed on a rack, allowing their customers to look at all the cards before making a final selection.
The joy of greeting cards isn’t just found in the smile that it brings to the recipient, but in the happiness you feel when you find the card that conveys exactly what you want to say to your special person. In 1944 Hallmark debuted their tagline: “when you care enough to send the very best.” In this modern world where so many things are becoming less tactile (even art itself!) the simple act of sending a greeting card is refreshing. It connects us to a really beautiful tradition of reaching out to the people we care about during those moments when we need to offer support, share a laugh, or celebrate. So tell me dear reader, who are you going to send a card to this Spring?