Even today, when virtual methods of communication have replaced much of the paper correspondence of the past, many people enjoy sending and receiving holiday cards. The Worcester Historical Museum holds a collection that represents the wide variety of cards created to recognize the holidays over more than 100 years. Many include personalized greetings from a certain individual or family, sending messages of good tidings to their recipients. Some were mass produced using the new technologies that emerged to speed the rate and lower the price of correspondence at the turn of the 20th century, while others were painstakingly crafted by the senders themselves, resulting in a one-of-a-kind sentiment of Christmas cheer.
The history of the modern holiday card goes back to the early Victorian era, a period that witnessed the emergence of many modern Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree, stockings, and caroling. Although many of the holiday inventions of the Victorian era derived from earlier Christian or pagan traditions, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that they became formalized and widely popular. Santa Claus, for example, represents the merging of several different folk figures, including the English Father Christmas and the Dutch St. Nicholas.
Prior to the introduction of Christmas cards, many people conveyed holiday greetings to their friends and loved ones via letters or by making personal visits. With the rise of industrialization and urbanization, however, social networks became increasingly fragmented and distant. It became difficult if not impossible to pay in-person visits to all of one’s relatives, and the process of writing letters to all of one’s acquaintances became long and laborious.
It was in this context that Sir Henry Cole, best known today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, had a groundbreaking idea. In 1843 he recruited his friend, the artist John Calcott Horsley, to create an illustration that would convey warmth and holiday cheer. The image that Horsley produced — showing a family gathered at Christmas dinner, with scenes on either side of people helping the poor — combined warm holiday sentiments with a moral imperative towards charity: the same combination of themes invoked in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published that same year. Cole printed one thousand copies of Horsley’s design on sheets of cardboard with the greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
While Cole is most commonly credited as the inventor of the modern Christmas card, a parallel tradition emerged around the same time in Scotland, where Thomas Shorrock of Leith created a series of cards featuring a merry figure with the greeting “A Guid Year Tae Ye.” Regardless of where the tradition originated, it would still be a few years before Christmas cards became widely popular, and a few more before manufacturers in the United States caught on to the trend. In fact, the “father of the American Christmas card” was not an American by birth: Louis Prang, a lithographic and copper plate manufacturer, was born in Germany in 1824. Departing his native country in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, he established a business in Boston producing business cards and small advertisements. Prang was incredibly successful, due in part to a groundbreaking multi-color lithographic printing process of his own invention that enabled him to create images with as many as 20 different colors.
In 1875, Prang introduced a series of “Illuminated Christmas Cards” that were an instant hit. These cards, targeted at American consumers, featured different styles and themes than their English counterparts. Many of them featured artistic floral designs or seasonal greenery, and were larger and more fully decorated than English cards. Within a few years, Prang was printing over five million Christmas cards annually, for which he charged between ten cents and a dollar.
Other manufacturers soon followed Prang’s example. Over the decades, an even larger repertoire of imagery was produced, including landscapes, animals, and nativity scenes. By the 1880s, Christmas cards were firmly established as an integral part of the American holiday tradition. Not all cards exhibited the artistry and quality of Prang’s products. Some manufacturers took advantage of the craze to produce cheaply made and inexpensive cards and Christmas-themed postcards.
In addition to their more obvious function as a means of spreading goodwill during the holidays, Christmas cards served a number of different functions for the people who exchanged them in the 19th century. They served to foster ties of friendship and business connections, provided a means of creative expression and demonstrating proper etiquette, and enshrined the status of the nuclear family and the home within the holiday celebration. Christmas cards also reflected changing technological conditions, as new production methods emerged to create cards in mass quantities and the growth of transportation networks quickened the pace of correspondence.
The 20th century witnessed the expansion of the Christmas card industry to a new scale. By the late 1920s, more than 5,000 Americans were employed in the production of Christmas cards in 40 factories across the country. One of the most successful producers of Christmas cards was a Kansas City company known as Hall Brothers, which set a new standard for the size and format of Christmas cards. Later known as Hallmark, the company became one of the premier manufacturers of greeting cards in the world. Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell were among the artists recruited by Hallmark to design its Christmas cards.
By the 1930s, Christmas cards were being produced by a variety of techniques — including etching ,wood engraving, linoleum cutting, and lithography — and could be easily customized to contain a greeting from an individual or family. The industry also expanded to include cards celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, taking advantage of an even wider consumer market. In the 1940s, non-profit corporations such as UNICEF began to sell Christmas cards as a means of funding their charitable work. The United States Post Office produced the first Christmas stamp in 1962. Today, Americans purchase around 1.6 billion holiday cards a year.
These Christmas illustrations were created by Mary Hovey Gage, the daughter of attorney and civic leader Thomas Hovey Gage Jr. and his wife Alice Chase, who was born in 1901. The calendar most likely dates to 1912. Mary grew up to be a prominent philanthropist in Worcester.
John Woodman Higgins, industrialist and founder of the Higgins Armory Museum, and his wife Clara Louise Carter Higgins sent a series of Christmas cards to their friends and relatives in the 1930s and 1940s featuring armor and artwork from their personal collection. The collections of the Higgins Armory Museum is now part of the Worcester Art Museum.
This card, sent by Anna Converse, features an illustration of the Myron Converse farm off Burncoat Street by R. W. Pierce, “now replaced by State Mutual Life Assurance Co.” The inside of the card shows the Converse family crest and an additional notation.
These two Christmas cards feature scenes from Worcester in the 19th century. The first image, showing the Worcester House owned by Lysander C. Clark, appears to have been modeled off a lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane around 1840.
The Heald Machine Company produced a series of Christmas cards featuring historical Worcester scenes illustrated by Stephen Thomas, including Elm Park, Lincoln Square, and the Levi Lincoln Mansion.
Hanc, John. “The history of the Christmas card.” Smithsonian Magazine, 9 December 2015.
Brown, Ellen F. “Christmas, Inc.: A brief history of the holiday card.” JSTOR Daily, 20 December 2015.
Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: A History. Oxford University Press, 1996.