History of Christmas Cards: An Overview of Their Evolution

Updated June 9, 2021
Hand Holding Christmas Cards

From snowy scenes to decorated evergreens, its become a requirement to send your family and friends Christmas cards every year. Whether you like to make your own personalized cards or buy a multi pack at the local store, people procure their favorite ones without much thought as to the reasons why. Yet, the history of Christmas cards is really compelling; so let's go back to the 19th century, before industrialization kick-started modern life to see where it all began.

The First Commercial Christmas Card

In 1843, notable inventor, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned the first commercial Christmas cards in London, England. Illustrated by John Callcott Horsley with a picture of a family drinking wine and sold for a penny each, Cole's idea spawned the beginnings of one of the most important and continuous holiday traditions. Of course, these early Christmas cards feature fashions, conventions, and customs from the 19th century, denouncing moral corruption and uplifting the social elite. Some even featured more macabre and surreal imagery, hinting at the growing fringe societies of the late 19th century. However, one thing they didn't really include was depictions of popular Christmas motifs. Rather than snowy scenes and winter themes, people preferred to send cards with pictures of flowers, fairies, and lighthearted landscapes that reminded the recipients that spring was coming soon. Another unique feature of these early cards is their shapes; they weren't relegated to only rectangles. In fact, there are extant examples of these cards shaped like fans, crescents, bells, birds, and candles. Some cards could even be folded like maps or fitted together like puzzles.

First Christmas card

Christmas Cards Cross the Atlantic

In 1875, Louis Prang became the first printer to offer commercial Christmas cards in the United States, coinciding with rising industrialization and the coming shift towards conventional Christmas celebrations. His designs differed from the English ones in that they included traditional Christmas and winter motifs and quickly grew popular with the American audience. Unfortunately, there was a near immediate onslaught of cheap imitations which led to the demise of Prang's business.

By the turn of the century, charitable organizations had figured out that they could use Christmas cards as a fundraising tool; the groups could bypass having to go to the donors individually by sending pleasant cards inquiring about donations directly to their homes. The best known of these initiatives is the 1949 Christmas card program that was launched by UNICEF. Interestingly, this fundraising tactic can be seen as one step towards the targeted advertising that you see today.

POST A LETTER TO SANTA CLAUS. Vintage etching circa late 19th century.

Christmas Cards Reach the White House

The true signifier that the practice of sending Christmas cards had transitioned into a cultural tradition was when President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House Christmas card in 1953. Although Christmas cards and notes had been released from previous Presidents, it wasn't until Eisenhower that the administration made it a compulsory tradition, and as it became commonplace, beloved American artists were commissioned to produce custom artworks for special cards. These cards were sent to U.S. ambassadors, members of the Cabinet and Congress, prominent government officials, foreign heads of state, and private donors.

Christmas Cards in the 21st Century

Ever-changing technologies of the 21st century have created an eco-friendly option for Christmas card senders in the form of e-cards. Just as with physical cards, you have the option of customizing your e-cards or picking stock cards from various businesses like Blue Mountain and Paperless Post. Photo-based Christmas cards are also incredibly popular among younger generations, as they can add a personal touch to any card with an easy step.

Christmas Cards as Collectibles

It may be surprising to some, but antique and vintage Christmas cards are actually quite the collectible. There's a significant community of collectors who hunt down historic paper ephemera and greeting cards. Some prefer cards that haven't been sent nor written on, while others enjoy the added touch of someone's written words on the back to give the cards character. An interesting adventure for you and your family to go on is to see if your grandparents or great-grandparents might have kept any of their greeting cards from their youth. Doing so can help you grow closer to your family's past as well as help preserve important pieces of them for future generations to see.

Victorian Christmas Card

Send Your Cards Early

Christmas cards are an incredibly easy way to stay connected with the loved ones that don't live close by. From morally righteous cards of the 19th century to the custom photo e-cards of today, Christmas cards have come a long way, but no matter if you prefer funny or sentimental, there's a card perfect for every person on your list out there. Just remember to get your Christmas cards sent in early.

History of Christmas Cards: An Overview of Their Evolution