The Origins of Christmas Cards

Leaflets expressing good wishes appeared at the beginning of the XVth century and are the ancestors of greeting cards. These were followed by XVIIIth century print versions which merchants sent their customers on New Year’s.

The greeting cards we exchange at Christmas or New Year’s and which are so much a part of our holiday traditions have their origins in England. The custom quickly developed in Europe, especially in Germany, because of a brand-new printing process perfected by Aloys Senefelder in 1796. Lithography, as the technique was called, could be used to reproduce large numbers of drawings or texts first drawn on a finely-textured stone.

The first postage stamp was issued in England in 1840 and the first series of envelopes decorated with Christmas designs was published the same year. Three years later, the first greeting card appeared. It was produced by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole. This card depicted a family enjoying Christmas celebrations and lifting their glasses in a toast. The scene greatly shocked temperance workers who quickly denounced it.

The first "American" greeting card is said to be the work of a German lithographer, Louis Prang, who immigrated to New York around 1850. Prang set up a workshop in Boston, Massachusetts in 1860 and began to produce the first coloured cards. At the time, however, greeting cards were more often linked to New Year’s than to Christmas.
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