Saturday, December 10, 2011

When Mailbags Get Heavy

Long before the idea of illustrated Christmas cards were the custom, most people sent their greetings in handwritten notes or letters. Chances are good that in those days postmen worldwide had a lot less Christmas season work than they do today. At a time when commercial cards were not an option, it’s a good bet that handwritten greetings during the holiday season were not something that a majority indulged in. Still, even before the appearance of commercially printed cards, homemade Christmas cards had become a nightmare for the US postal service. In 1822 the Superintendent of Mails in Washington D.C. complained of the need to hire extra mailmen, going as as far as petitioning Congress to limit the exchange of cards by post. It only worsened for the post office and its mailmen in the years to come.

The poem inside this folded card from 1932 reads:

Across a bridge of pleasant thought

This old greeting will stray

They bring the same old-fashioned words

We like so well to say.

Christmas cards designed for sale were first created by a London artist, John Calcott Horsley, commissioned by a wealthy businessman in 1843 to create a greeting card he could send to friends and professional acquaintances wishing them a “merry Christmas.” Horsley’s design was in the form of a triptych, with each side panel illustrating the good deeds of clothing or feeding the poor. The center panel depicted a party enjoyed by children and adults, with a display of plentiful food and drink. Words on the card read: “A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year To You.” At the time ‘merry’ had a spiritual connotation implying ‘blessed.’

John Calcott Horsley’s 1843 Christmas Card

In no time, printed Christmas cards became the rage in England, spreading quickly to Germany. For some reason, it took another thirty years for Americans to pick up the idea. A Boston lithographer named Louis Prang began printing Christmas cards in 1875, earning the title of “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Americans took to printed cards, but in short time rejected Prang’s floral designs, choosing instead cheap penny Christmas postcards imported from Germany. These remained popular until the end of World War I when America’s modern greeting card industry took off.

This Norwegian card from 1942 was forbidden by the Nazis.

Christmas is the card industry’s peak season, and within the US alone more than two billion cards are exchanged. Faced with this number—or even imagining it— Washington D.C.’s Superintendent of Mails in 1822 would have gone stark raving insane.

A 1914 Christmas Greeting to men in the trenches

A modern card with 50s tropical-bizarre flavor


  1. Another informative post. Have a feeling (although still in the millions no doubt) people are not sending Christmas cards like they once did only a decade ago. I can remember my mother Scotch-taping cards completely around the door facing. In those days they were displayed along with all the other holiday trappings.

  2. Interesting to hear how the Christmas cards evolved. Ever since I was old enough to remember, my mama sent Christmas cards.....but not so many because she just couldn't afford the 3 cent stamp.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America