The history of the Christmas card — Is it more than just a commercialised piece of paper?
by Esme Kroese | 14 December 2021
As a child I grew up with Christmas cards, whether at school where I wrote them for my teachers and friends, or at home where I received them from family members abroad. However, I hadn’t yet realised the history behind Christmas cards. We send them to loved ones at Christmas time, but often we don’t fully appreciate the artistic skills used to make them.
The first Christmas card was created by John Calcott Horsley in 1843, who was commissioned by Henry Cole, a wealthy and well-known businessman, to create these cards so that he could give them to his patrons and family members as a token of affection and warm ‘Merry Christmas’ wishes. In the following year over a thousand were painted and printed by independent artists and sold in London. The first commercially produced Christmas cards were made in the United States in the 1880s. A man called Lewis Prang produced more than five million Christmas cards in one year using the Chromolithography process, which allowed him to create colourful and realistic images that would go on the cards. As a result of this process, he did not have to employ large numbers of workers to paint each of the individual prints by hand, thus making Christmas cards more reproducible and accessible to the general public.
Today we can go into most stores in the period leading up to Christmas and there will be Christmas cards advertised. Furthermore, growing up in the age of digital technology, we are all able to produce generic digital Christmas cards that wish you ‘A Very Merry Christmas’ online. These digital cards soon disappear among our emails never to be seen again, underscoring the increasingly impersonal and disposable nature of modern Christmas cards.
Usually, Christmas cards depict biblical scenes, Angels or Santa Claus, and, my own personal favourite, an image of an adorable little red robin in the snow. However, when they were initially created they had a much greater level of artistic quality compared to contemporary renditions. Many of us have memories of making Christmas cards at school and transporting them home, handing them to our parents with pride. Our parents may have kept them over the years as symbols of nascent artistic sensibilities — even though, in my personal case, the majority of the drawings that were depicted on my Christmas cards were, at best, amateurish and, more likely, pretty awful.
The Victorian times witnessed the rising popularity, circulation, and topicality of Christmas cards within high society. Some examples of the types of images depicted on Christmas cards in their early days can be seen as quite shocking. For example, there were images of bats, dead robins, a man being attacked by a bear, two small children being bullied by a giant wasp and many other unusual but skilful depictions by artists at the time. The reason why these kinds of Christmas Card images were depicted and preserved was that Christmas cards were also seen as respectable forms of art, and they would often be displayed in exhibits and galleries. Whilst we may consider Christmas cards to be easy to produce due to our current technology such as electronic printing, historically this was not the case, which increased the perceived value attributed to these cards.
During the Victorian period Christmas cards were treated by their receivers as works of art, created specifically for the owner at an important time of year. This arguably made them even more personal to the receiver, as the producer highlighted the Christmas values of love and affection by creating something special and unique.
For example, the Christmas Card below, which depicts a dead robin, was clearly created as a morose joke with the inscription stating ‘May yours be a Joyful Christmas’. This statement highlights the sender’s joke that it cannot get much worse than the Christmas that the poor dead robin is having. The card suggests the potentially close relationship between the sender and receiver, a relation obviated today by the impersonal nature of mass-produced Christmas cards.
Image – Victorian Christmas card of Dead Robin.
Resource – Bethan Bell. ‘Frog Murder and Boiled Children: “Merry Christmas” Victorian Style’. BBC. Last Modified 21 December 2015. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-34988154
We also have examples of artists that created Christmas cards for friends and family. Such artworks were exhibited in the New York Public Library print room and recorded in the American Magazine of Art, Vol. 23, No. 6 (1931). During this exhibition there were works from over 60 artists exhibited. They created these Christmas cards through various mediums of etching, wood engraving, linoleum cutting, and lithography. Some card images were even produced through the photo-process, which is an innovative method for this period. Included in the Christmas card exhibition were cards created by prominent artists such as Max Weber, a Jewish-American painter and one of the first American Cubists, and Mabel Dwight, an artist who focused on using lithography to depict scenes of everyday life with jocularity and empathy. As Mr Weitenkampf, the curator of prints at the time, stated, these Christmas cards and the techniques through which they were created acted as ‘little products of occasional graphic art [that] can be enjoyed both as personal expression in art and technique and – [as a] happy solution to the problem of pictorial emphasis [and] good wishes’.
So next time we take our Christmas cards for granted or lose them during the rapid present opening of Christmas morning, we should consider the history of Christmas cards, their origins as respected and unique artistic tokens of friendship and love. These Christmas-time values apply as much today as they did in the past, despite the change in the manufacture of the Christmas card.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "John Callcott Horsley". Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Callcott-Horsley. Accessed 9 December 2021.
Bethan Bell. “ Frog Murder and Boiled Children: ‘Merry Christmas’ Victorian Style”. BBC. Last Modified 21 December 2015. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-34988154
“Christmas Cards by American Artists.” The American Magazine of Art 23, no. 6 (1931): 505–6. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23936205
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Max Weber." Encyclopedia Britannica, September 30, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Max-Weber-American-artist
“Mabel Dwight.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/mabel-dwight-1373