The First Noels
Henry Cole, an English civil servant with an interest in art, is credited with mailing the first mass-produced Christmas card in 1843. The story goes that with the holiday approaching, Cole was too busy to write individual greetings, so he thought of sending a general message.
Cole’s friend and artist John Callcott Horsley did a sketch of a family celebrating their holiday dinner, captioned “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New
Year to You.” Cole had 1,000 cards printed (many were handcolored), sending some and offering others for sale at a shilling each—about a week’s pay for an average worker at the time.
The cards generated a backlash because Horsley’s sketch featured a woman helping a child to a tipple of Christmas wine.
Original Coles are collectibles; one sold for more than $28,000 in 2001.
Christmas cards caught on in the United States after 1875, when expert lithographer Louis Prang added them to his New England publishing business.
Within six years, Prang had a booming trade in holiday cards. He was producing 5 million a year, and his Roxbury, Massachusetts, factory was a tourist attraction.
Prang ran annual card-design competitions to promote the work of lesser-known artists, especially female painters.
His cards were known for their quality, and many of them featured fringes, tassels and other embellishments.
The greeting card industry’s annual design awards, The Louies, are named in honor of Prang.