Who Invented the Christmas Card?

In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, the British Postal System initiated the “Penny Post”, enabling the Sender to mail a card or letter anywhere in England for the cost of a penny stamp.  Prior to that, although it was often cost prohibitive, people had mailed Christmas and New Year’s letters to close friends and family.  But when these cheap stamps became available, more people than ever began sending Christmas letters.  Because it was considered bad manners not to respond to mail during Victorian times, people who had a lot of friends found they couldn’t keep up and looked for a solution to their problem.

One prominent socialite and arts patron with this dilemma, Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, enlisted an artist friend to help.  The artist created images on a triptych: the inner panel showed a family seated at a table celebrating the holiday and on both sides were images of people helping the poor.  Henry Cole had a thousand copies printed on stiff cardboard approximately 5 by 3 inches.  Each card had a generic greeting and a blank where Cole could fill in the name of the recipient.  Although the idea didn’t catch on immediately, within a few years other prominent Victorians copied Cole’s idea and began sending out similar cards during the Christmas season.

In the U.S., the first credited Christmas card was created in 1875 in Boston.  It was a painting of a flower and it read, “Merry Christmas”.  During the coming years, most U.S. Christmas cards contained pictures of animals, nature, or autumn scenes rather than winter or religious scenes.  Card publishers began organizing competitions and people collected these cards, like stamps or coins.  Each season, newly designed cards were reviewed in newspapers.

The modern Christmas card is attributed to a Kansas City postcard printing company owned by the Hall brothers.  The Hall Brothers Company (which later changed its name to Hallmark) adopted a book format for its cards so people had more room to write their holiday messages without having to write an entire letter.  These cards measured 4 by 6 inches, were folded once and inserted in an envelope.  This new format became the industry standard.  The fronts of these cards included seasonal art and in the coming decades, Hallmark and their competitors hired artists like Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell to design their cards. 

In 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy created two paintings for Hallmark to display on a special edition of Christmas cards. One of these paintings is shown here. All proceeds from the sale of these cards were donated to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Nowadays, Christmas cards are often produced by small publishers and artists.  There are pop-up cards, photo cards, video cards, and audio cards as well as traditional paper cards.  And, of course, there’s always the Christmas letter; not a Christmas card but I’d venture, just as welcomed and appreciated as any Christmas card. 

[This blog post is derived from a 2015 article in Smithsonian Magazine]

There’s Nothing Wrong with Emails

There’s nothing wrong with communicating by email. 

Emails are quick, productive, and simple.  They’re also efficient.  When we want to shoot out identical information to a bunch of people, emailing is ideal. There’s even a name for that kind of explosive electronic mailing: it’s called an “email blast”.  

Emails are great when we’re in a hurry or facing a deadline. Also, emailing (and its cousin, texting) offer us the ease of responding with clever abbreviations, memes, and emoticons so we don’t have to bother coming up with a more precise word or phrase to express exactly what we want to say.  With emails and texts, we simply pick and poke, react rather than respond.  It’s so easy.

However . . .

Although no one loves seeing the name of a familiar Sender in her Email Inbox more than I do, I recently concluded that an email or text, no matter how clever or heartfelt the message, just doesn’t take the place of a real letter. Maybe it’s because I read the message on a screen and when I close my computer or my phone, it disappears.  Maybe it’s that we’re all in this self-enforced seclusion where we can’t hug, we can’t socialize, and we can’t gather together; maybe because of that, I found myself seeking something more physical, a more tactile way I could connect to people I care about.

I began wondering whether our society’s transition from handwritten letters to emailing and texting was one of those changes we let happen without thinking it through.  Whether we mindlessly replaced a type of communication that some of us now look back on and miss. 

In a 2019 Opinion Piece for the New York Times, computer scientist and author Cal Newport argued that Steve Jobs never meant for iPhones to become our constant companions.  He wrote that Jobs envisioned the iPhone as a device to help us with a small, select number of activities like listening to music, placing calls, and generating directions. 

I’d go so far as to venture that even the forward-thinking Mr. Jobs never intended that emailing and texting should replace the art of letter writing.  Or that writing letters by hand should become obsolete or even disappear from our culture.

Not long ago, when I was in a COVID-fatigue funk, I stopped in my local post office to pick up our mail. Amidst the usual bills, advertisements, and political propaganda, was a letter, a real letter sent to me from a Florida friend.  She’s a visual artist so she’d decorated the envelope with rubber stampings of snails holding tiny envelopes in their mouths, with fun, illegible script, with washi tape, and with three different postage stamps.  Standing in the post office lobby, I got teary-eyed above my mask.  That letter, even unopened, was such an unexpected gift that it buoyed my spirits and inspired me to reexamine my own letter writing habits (or actually NON-habits).  That letter got me thinking. 

I decided that maybe it was time for me to cut the electronic cord, so-to-speak, or at least unplug it, to find a place where I can be alone with my thoughts, so I can reach out to friends and family who are dearly missed, through a handwritten letter.  Although the missives I’ve been writing are never perfect (often there are inserted words or crossed out phrases), if I’m honest, I can see that the rhythm of the words I pen resembles my speech patterns.  Which means the letters I’m sending are real.  Real in the physical sense and real in the sense that they’re reflections of who I am at this point in my life. 

During these challenging times, as the numbers of people infected by the COVID virus rise and we continue to hunker down, sequester, separate, and isolate ourselves, one antidote might be to write and send someone you care about a real letter.  Although it won’t be the same as an in-person connection, it might touch a chord and be a tangible link from you to that person in ways that emailing and texting, for all their benefits, cannot match.

These days, I still send emails and texts when the situation warrants it.  But I also make time to write real letters, hoping that when someone finds an envelope from me in their mailbox, it reminds them that they, too, are one-of-a-kind, special, and most of all, real.  Just like the letter they are about to open.