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The Christmas Card Tale – The Origin of the Ubiquitous Holiday Missive

by WorthPoint Staff (12/22/09).

A vintage Christmas card by Wanamaker & Brown of Philidelphia.

A vintage Christmas card by Wanamaker & Brown of Philidelphia.

How do tell somebody you care? Go to the store, buy a card and let somebody else do the telling for you.

The oldest Christmas card created for general distribution probably was created by William Egley Jr.; a 16 year-old British youth. His 3 1/2-inch-by-5 1/2-inch, 1842 printed impression, preserved in the British Museum, depicts four holiday scenes and a “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” greeting with blanks after the word “To” on the top and “From” at the bottom. Industrious kid.

By 1860, many kinsmen had embraced Egley’s concept. Rival greeting card firms began employing prominent artists, such as Kate Greenaway, the beloved illustrator of children’s books.

The father of American Christmas cards was award-winning Boston lithographer/inventor Louis Prang, who, in 1873, reproduced a holiday card autographed by Christmas Carol author, Charles Dickens. Perhaps the greatest of Prang’s many innovations was the development of a multi-color printing process that incorporated as many as 20 colors on one print or card. Hues and detailing were so vivid that artists were sometimes not able to distinguish their own works from reproduced chromos (chromolithographic prints) when hung side by side on a wall.

Taking full advantage of this technology, Prang employed the finest artisans of his day. Card painters included the likes of Frederick S. Church, Arthur F. Tait and Winslow Homer. Poetic geniuses such as Longfellow, Tennyson and William Cullen Bryant were among those hired to write verses.

Toward enhancing originality, the Boston industrialist began holding Christmas card design contests on a yearly basis beginning in 1880. In 1885, Prang gave prizes for essays on Christmas cards written by women. With prominent judges, lavish celebrations and top prizes from $200 to $2,000, Prang’s contests soon paid off in publicity, becoming media events.

An example of a vintage Christmas card.

An example of a vintage Christmas card.

Although prices ranged from 50 cents to $15 each (a fortune in those days), Prang’s greeting sold briskly until inexpensive German cards flooded the market. Refusing to lower quality standards, Prang quit the business.

Highly collectible Prang cards usually can be identified by tiny lettering “L Prang and Co., Boston” on the bottom margin. Occasionally, Prang left only a rose symbol (a veiled sign of affection for his wife, Rose) or disguised his mark under a tiny shoe or on a leaf.

Nineteenth-century Christmas cards are often graphic masterpieces incorporating silk fringes, tassels, mother of pearl inlays and satin backgrounds. Flowers, angels, carolers, gentle animals, romantic young women and happy children are dominant design themes.

From 1900 to 1920, penny postcards from Germany featuring Santa Claus, nostalgic hearth and snow scenes, holly, toys and Nativity settings captured the market. In 1910, J.C. Hall began selling postcards out of a shoebox at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo. His one-man enterprise turned into what we know today as Hallmark Cards Inc.

Xmas card collecting (by the way, “X” is not a tacky abbreviation, it has religious significance in that X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ) can be a rewarding hobby for adults and children. Prominent makers, excellent condition, early age, strong graphics, mechanical movements, interesting “collectible” subject matter, artist signed examples, large size and fine detailing help to determine value. Most of all, look for cards that hit you in the heart. That’s Santa’s real home.

—Wayne Mattox
Antique Talk

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