Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Christmas Cards, A Little History

by | December 19, 2012 | 10 comments

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Last week I signed, addressed and sent out my Christmas Cards. For me, that was a little late. I’ve been known to have my cards in the mail December 1st. Addressing the cards got me to thinking about the history of Christmas Cards. So I did a little research for Sweethearts of the West Holiday posts.

In the early 1800’s, personal greetings to family and friends were becoming the vogue in both England and America. People sent out hand-written Christmas wishes. By 1822, homemade cards were the bane of the U.S. Post Office. The post master general complained of having to hire sixteen extra mailmen to handle the increase of mail during the holiday season. He petitioned Congress to limit the exchange of holiday cards, fearful of bottlenecks they might cause. “I can’t know,” he said, “what we’ll do if this keeps up.”

By the 1840’s the custom was well established. The first commissioned card was designed in England in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, who decided to try something new that year. He commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to illustrate a 3-panel scene. One scene in particular raised a fuss with the Puritans, as it depicted a family raising glasses in good cheer. “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You” was embossed across it. Of the 1,000 commissioned by Cole, only a handful remain today.

Christmas Card first printed 

In spite of the lack of enthusiasm by the general public over Cole’s card, the idea did catch on. Perhaps the public was tired of making their own cards. In 1844, more than 25,000 holiday cards were sold in England. The fad crossed The Pond and the exchange of Christmas cards became popular in America as well. However, for 30 years, the U.S. had to import their Christmas cards from Europe. In the 1850’s, German immigrant Louis Prang opened a lithograph shop in Boston. In 1875, Prang published the first Christmas cards, which featured birds and flowers instead of the traditional holiday scenes usually associated with Christmas cards today. By 1881, he was producing more than 5 million cards a year.

Cards designed by  Kate Greenaway, a Victorian children’s author, and Frances Bundage were among the favorite cards during the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Most of their cards were very elaborate, with silk and fringe.  Shapes cutout for birds, bells, even fans and crescents were the vogue.  Still others would fold like maps or fit together like a puzzle. Then there were the pop-up cards that revealed scenes such as the manager or a skating ring with tiny skaters gliding across the pond.


Fun Facts:

  • A surge of Christmas Cards were sent in the 1940’s as family and friends sent cards to far-flung military personal fighting throughout the world during WWII.
  • In 1953 President Eisenhower issued the first official White House card. In 1961 the White house sent out 2000 cards. By 2005 that number had snowballed to 1.4 million.
  • Organizations took up using Christmas cards as a way to raise money. The most famous is UNICEF, who began their program in 1949. St. Jude’s Ranch in Arizona is another well-known non-profit who uses Christmas cards as a fund raiser (they recycle cards, so a good place to send yours).
  • More than 2 billion cards were mailed in the U.S. last year…think the post master imagined THAT number of cards?

girls_toys card

Be sure and visit my blog, www.annakatherlanier.blogspot.com for daily recipes for holiday goodies!

Anna Kathryn Lanier


This post first appeared on the  Sweethearts of the West blog on 12-19-11.


  1. Paty Jager

    It’s always fun to learn where traditions come from. Fun post, Anna Kathryn. I sent out my cards a couple weeks ago and have been anxiously awaiting cards from family I only hear from at the holidays.

  2. Kathy Otten

    I just mailed my cards yesterday. Ten years ago or more I had Christmas Cards hanging all over the house, so far this year I’ve received nine. My kids don’t even send out cards and with the internet I wonder if the whole tradition will be lost by the next generation.

  3. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    I so agree, Paty and Kathy. I never get back as many cards as I send out. I think that’s sad. I love getting them and reading them. I put mine in a basket on the coffee table. For several years, I had a ‘card tree’, a medium sized branch from a tree that I spray painted gold and hung red ribbons and the cards from. It was nice to have. I don’t really have the room here for that now. Also, in the past, I would make a ‘tree’ on the wall from the cards, putting them in a pattern.

  4. Gerri Bowen

    Very interesting post, Anna.

  5. Ella Quinn

    Because most of our friends are military or work for some government agency and move a lot, including us, I got out of the habit of writing cards, but I do send ecards.

    Interesting post.

  6. Angelyn

    The images you’ve included are beautiful. They really get me nostalgic.

    The Post Office bit had me tickled.

  7. Ally Broadfield

    I love the tradition of sending holiday cards, but with the advent of social media, fewer and fewer people seem to be doing it. Great post!

  8. Lana Williams

    I enjoy sending and receiving cards – so fun to learn more about the tradition! Great blog!

  9. Susan Macatee

    Great post, Anna! I love looking at those Victorian era cards.

  10. Margaret Tanner

    Hi Anna Kathryn,
    That was a fascinating blog. As a history writer I am always interested in picking up historical information.




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