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A Quick History of Christmas Cards

Learn how the Christmas greeting cards became a mainstream phenomenon. Image courtesy of MaxPixel

Learn how the Christmas greeting cards became a mainstream phenomenon. Image courtesy of MaxPixel

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It was at the turn of the 19th century, and the US Postal Service was facing a new and dangerous menace: handwritten Christmas greetings. While previously, neighbors, families and friends sent their written greetings by hand, the explosion in transportation infrastructure saw a swift uptake in interstate Christmas greeting letters deliveries.

However, the high volume and irregular-sized letters handwritten on flimsy papers were consuming an inordinately high level of logistical and maintenance resources to manage, especially considering the small delivery window. It was stretching the Postal Service extremely thin. By 1822, the Superintendent of Mails in the capital made a formal petition to the American Congress demanding for uniform measures to be implemented on Christmas mails, as they detailed how an extra 16 mail carriers were hired in the D.C alone to cope with the increase Christmas mail volume. They would never have guessed how bad things are going to get.

The Birth of Christmas Cards

Unbeknownst to them, on the other side of the Atlantic, nightmarish scenes were unfolding without so much as a squeak. Book publisher Henry Cole, grown tired of the repetitious act of writing Christmas greetings to his friends and families, approached a graphics artist, John Calcott Horsley, with the idea of designing a standardized Christmas greeting card template with all the greetings prepared, requiring only the signature of the sender.

Horsley duly obliged and came up with a colored, three-paneled design bearing the immortal phrase, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. Cole was exceedingly pleased and made an initial print run of 1,000 copies. After taking a small portion for his personal use, he delivered the rest to his resellers, a little hesitantly, at first. Much to his delight, it immediately became a hit and reprints by printers were made round the clock to cater to the demand. Within a decade, Christmas greeting cards were the rage in England and the concept began to make its way across the Atlantic.

Assorted Christmas Card designs. Image by Petr Kratochvil

Christmas Cards in the United States

Christmas cards took a while to gain a foothold in the States due to the high freight import cost. However, in 1875, an enterprising German immigrant by the name of Louis Prang began printing the cards locally and selling them at a significantly cheaper price compared to the imported versions. It became a massive hit, and despite the emergence of numerous competitors not long after that, Prang’s range dominated the market. Within six years, his firm was printing in excess of 5 million cards a year.

The next step in the Christmas greeting cards evolution took shape in 1910, when a Missouri teen by the name of Joyce Hall began producing high quality, personalized cards for the masses. Despite the fractionally higher price, Hall’s product became popular with the public and his firm, Hall Bros, grew by leaps and bound. Today, Hall’s legacy stands under the name of Hallmark.

The age of the written Christmas greetings have long met its end, and D.C’s former Superintendent of Mails must be smiling in his grave, knowing that his beloved postal service is now easily handling the delivery of over two billion greeting cards annually – all because of his plea to Congress.

Song of the day: Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You

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