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Historic Christmas Cards

December 19, 2008

The library’s DRT 2 Ephemera Collection contains three examples of Christmas cards that reflect changing trends in card format and style during the first decades of the twentieth century.

The postcard below – postmarked in San Antonio on December 20, 1905 and sent to Miss Stella Faust in New Braunfels – demonstrates the boom in Christmas “penny postcards” that were popular after the turn of the century. The increasing popularity of these inexpensive cards, which were largely mass-produced in Germany and were cheaper to mail than cards, ended the manufacture of elaborate Victorian Era cards. The Christmas postcard remained popular in the United States until World War I, which ceased the import of German goods and stimulated the development of a domestic greeting card industry.

Christmas postcard from 1905.

Christmas postcard from 1905.

The other two Christmas cards in the DRT collection are from the 1930s. During this decade, the folded card familiar today replaced single-sided cards and became the standard format. Like other folded cards from the time, the first card below has a picture and short greeting on the outside with a message, in this case a four line poem, inside. That single-sided cards were still being used is reflected by the second card, which is dated 1937 and was sent by Adina De Zavala, an early member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who was instrumental in preserving the Alamo, and her sister and fellow DRT member, Mary.

"Across a bridge of pleasant thought / This old greeting will stray / They bring the same old-fashioned words / We like so well to say.

The poem inside this 1932 folded card 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."

A 1937 single-sided Christmas card from DRT members and sisters Adina and Mary De Zavala.

A 1937 single-sided Christmas card from DRT members and sisters Adina and Mary De Zavala.

While the practice of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians, the history of modern greeting cards began in 1843. Englishman Sir Henry Cole, seeking to end the cumbersome task of hand-writing letters to many acquaintances, commissioned John Calcott (alternately Callcott) Horsley to create an image and message that could be duplicated for everyone on his list. Horsely lithographed and hand-colored 1,000 copies of this first commercial Christmas card; only twelve of them are known to still exist. Click here to see a picture of Horsley’s card.

Christmas cards were fairly rare in the United States until German lithographer Louis Prang began printing commercial cards in 1875. Before that, Americans who wanted Christmas cards generally had to pay a high price from a limited selection of cards imported from Europe, while others used business cards embellished with holiday ornamentation. Greeting cards quickly became popular among Americans, and Prang’s were the most popular ones available in the late nineteenth century; by 1881 he printed almost five million cards each year. However, Prang, whose cards ranged in price from seventy-five cents to $1.25 each, could not compete with the less expensive cards offered by other manufacturers, particularly those from Germany. In the 1890s, Prang abandoned his business.

Information for this entry came from a website compiled by private collector Greg Livaudais of Metairie, Louisiana, that explores the history of Christmas cards and provides numerous examples from the author’s personal collection of over 7,800 Christmas cards dating from 1864 to the present.

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Reference Services permalink
    December 20, 2008 3:40 pm

    Your web site is terrific!

    Here is the url to a blog from the Archives of the Sandusky Library,
    if you would like to take a look:

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