Christmas Cards

Figure 1.--Here is an English Christmas trade card from the early 1880s. A HBC reader writes, "I have a collection all from the same publisher/printer: I think thay were samples carried by a salesman of the time."

Chrismas cards are one of the many Christmas traditions that we have inherited from the Victorian era. Christmas cards became an important part of Europen and American Christmas traditions in the late-19th century. They are used to share the joy of the holiday season as well as bring wishes of joy and health to family and friends. They allow family and friends to remind each other that they are thinking about them. People use the annual Christmas card to "keep in touch" with family and friends. These cards have evolved over time, but the purpose and sentiment has remained little changed.

Greeting Cards

The Christmas card like many American Chrfistmas traditions originated in Britain. The first true commercial Christmas card is believed to be the Cole/Horsley card. It was printed for public sale in 1843. Sir Henry Cole was the first director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. He and other people at the time would laboriously write out large numbers of holiday wishes to his relatives as well as friends and associates. At the time, many would write these greetings on paper with holiday decorations. Also there were greeting cards without a specific holiday theme. Cole decided to ask a friend to produce a card with a Christmas message that he could send without writing out a message. He chose John Calcott Horsley, an recognized artist (member of the Royal Academy) and a personal friend of Cole. Cole decided to use the card not only personally, but to sell it to the general public. Cole printed 1,000 lithographed/hand-colored copies. These were sold for 1 shilling apiece. That was about the wage a common laborer might earn in a day. The caption was "A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU"--not disimilar from modern greetings. The Cole/Horsley card portrayed three scenes. The center panel was a family scene with three generations, including children. The people were clothed in contemprary clothing styles. The side panels illustrated feeding the hungry clothing the naked. The later proved to be too explicit for popular tastes and the card was with drawn from sale. The idea of a Christmas card, however, proved very popular. One reason that the Christmas card appeared in the Victorian era was the development of increasingly efficent natioonal postal services. The Postal Act of 1840 was passed in Britain. This substantially reduced the cost of sending a letter or card. The new law mandated that mail could be sent anywhere in the country for 1 penny--the famed Penny Post. Previously postal fees were based on distance and poaid by the recipient when the letter arrived. The next year in 1844 another Christmas card was printed for commercial sale by W.C.T. Dobson awith a much larger print run. W.M. Edgley in 1848 produced another early card and for the first ime incorporatd ivy in the design.

Trade Cards

Another Victorian innovation was the trade card. A popular activity during the Victorian era was compiling albumns which were kept in the parlor and shown to family and other visitors. We today think about photograph albums. This was an important part of the Victorian albums, especially beginning in the 1860s when CDVs and cabinent cards first appeared. Victorian albums were far more than just pohotograph albums. These albums would be today called scarapbooks. Victorians loved to collect. One of the things they liked to put in their scrapbooks was colorful items. The photography of the era was all black and white. Color printing became iicreasingly common in the second half of the 19th century. One of the colorful items that became available were trade cards. These began to appear in the 1870s. Trade cards, were eyecatching cards printed by merchants to advertise their good and services. They were passed out much as merchants and compasnies later passed our calenders. The first such cards were very simples ones given out by merchants in the 18th century. Companies in the 19th century began including cards with their products, items like coffee, tea, soap, tobacco, and other food items. Collecting these cars became popular with the entire family. The quality of the printing improved as lithography became increasingly sophisticated. Trade cards were not just Christmas items, but many manufacturers printed cards for Christmas to thank their customers. These cards had a range of themes, often stressing the non-religious aspoects of Christmas such as Santa Claus, Christmas tress, snowy scenes, and of course rosy-cheeked children. Trade cards commonly had advertisements. Companies for Chridstmas might replace the advertisement with a Chrisdtmas greeting. Many would save these cards and place them in their parlor scrape books.

Advent Calanders

Here we have a charming German Advent Calandar that a HBC reader has sent us. Greeting cards are one of the many forms of these calenders. We thought at first that this was a distincly German tradition, but our European readers tell us thjat they are popular in many European countries. We have not noted them in America, but one of our American readers tells us that she has seen them.


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Created: December 18, 2003
Last updated: 9:04 PM 12/28/2004