The History of Holiday Greeting Cards

Though social media messages have become the holiday greeting norm, nothing compares to hanging up a row of decorative Christmas cards at home on the mantel or at work on your desk. It's a tradition that started nearly 180 years ago and with 2 billion holiday cards sent annually in the U.S. alone, it doesn't appear to be losing much steam.

The history of holiday cards

The first Christmas card from 1843

The First Commercially Printed Holiday Card

The artistic mastermind behind commercial Christmas cards was English academic painter John Callcott Horsley. Having studied at the Royal Academy schools, Horsely was commissioned in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole to design the world's first commercial greeting card. Cole was in charge of printing and marketing the cards. The original run consisted of a mere 50 cards, which were bought by an enthusiastic public, inspiring Cole print another 2,000 cards.

The scene on this historic greeting card is a jolly one: a gathering of cheerful people around the dinner table, eating and drinking wine. Yet there was controversy over this design. Front and center, right above the words "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You" is the picture of a young child happily drinking from a glass of wine.

Holiday card growth in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries

The popularity of sending an annual Christmas card exploded. In 1881, Australian Robert Sands held a competition for artists to design original cards and verses. More than 700 entries were submitted. It was official: greeting card fever has taken over the world.

Though many families chose—and still choose—to create home-made greeting cards, the industry boomed. Stationery manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon, creating cards that reflected current tastes and events. During the World Wars, patriotic greeting cards were quite popular. Cartoon-based cards caught on in the 1950s, and Victorian and Edwardian reproductions have been popular into the 21st century. Americans alone buy 2 billion Christmas cards each year!

Cards from Royalty and Presidents

British royalty and American presidents have been sending cards for many, many years. Queen Victoria started sending hers in the 1840s, and the British royal family continues the tradition by sending cards with portraits of significant events throughout the year.

British Royal Family Christmas Cards

While U.S. presidents have been giving Christmas cards since the early 20th century, Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with sending the first official White House cards. Since then, presidents have sent a varied quantity of cards, from 1,100 in 1953 to a whopping 1.4 million in 2005!

From left to right: Lyndon B. Johnson (1967), Barack Obama (2011), George W. Bush (2004).

Presidential Christmas Cards from the White House

Current Holiday Card Statistics

  • Over 2 billion Christmas cards have sold annually in the U.S. in recent years
  • The U.S. has approximately 3,000 greeting card publishers
  • Commercial holiday cards are often secular in message and design
  • Behind Christmas cards, birthday cards are the most popular greeting card
  • It is estimated that 500 million e-cards are sent worldwide each year

Article sources: Lori Ferber Presidential Memorabilia, Inverloch Historical Society, Greeting Card Association, Everything Royal

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