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What's Up Magazine

Antiques: Holiday Greeting Cards

Dec 04, 2011 11:11PM ● By Anonymous
Sending out cards during the holiday season has become a way for many families to stay in touch with friends and relations as the year comes to a close and another is about to begin.

The concept of sending Christmas and New Year’s cards began when the first cards for these holidays were designed by John Calcott Horsely and published in 1843 by Englishman Henry Cole. But the idea of sending cards to celebrate the holiday season was not initially adopted by the general public. It was nearly 20 years later that a multitude of publishers began printing Christmas and New Year’s cards and people began sending them to their business associates and friends.

The use of the Christmas/New Year’s cards was a natural outgrowth from the practice of leaving a visiting card. Before the era of the telephone, friends and acquaintances would drop by unexpectedly. The visiting card enabled one to announce their presence. It allowed one to be identified before it was verified by the servants that the master or mistress was at home. Even when handed directly to the person on whom one was calling, it gave legitimacy to one’s residence and profession. In 1862, publisher Joseph Mansell created a popular visiting card slightly larger than the standard two by three inch visiting card. The card featured a center vignette of two people shaking hands and included the notation, “A Happy New Year to You.” This seasonal calling card concept become so popular that it naturally developed into Christmas and New Year’s cards like those previously introduced twenty years earlier in England. 

While most greetings cards could be bought during the 1880s for a nickel or a dime, the Prang Company based in Roxbury, Massachusetts, sold some of their cards for a dollar. They were worth saving. Today, many of these cards are worth hundreds of dollars. 

A German immigrant who began producing cards in 1874, Mr. Prang specialized in reproducing artist’s paintings into lithographic form for use as greeting cards. The quality he demanded often required 20 color plates or more to capture the variety of color and tone on an artist’s canvas. This multiple use of color plates to achieve a depth of color is known as chromolithography. 

A favorite hobby in many homes during the 19th century was scrapbooking (assembling postcards, autographs, souvenirs, and other paper mementos along with special pieces of colored and embossed paper) into an album. The special pieces of decorated paper were known as “scraps” and initially were black and white engravings that were hand tinted; thus the term scrapbook. Scraps that took on a more three dimensional appearance became possible as the process of chromolithography developed. Die-cut sheets were relief stamped, embossed and sold in sheets. Individual illustrations such as Santa Claus or snowflakes were connected with small tabs or strips. Series of these die sheets, produced primarily in Germany and England, were used by many consumers to create their own holiday cards and decorations. Antique paper collectors now seek these scraps. 

Exciting old Christmas cards to collect are ornamented with paper velveteen, glitter, cutwork, and ribbon. Cards created from paper cutouts continued to be popular the first half of the 20th century, along with stand up Santas and Christmas trees made of cardboard and paper to decorate table settings, mantels, and windowsills. Early 20th century card companies to collect include the Gibson Art Company, Rust Craft Greeting Cards, and Hallmark Cards Inc. Collectible cards should be clean, crisp, with no creases. 

From year to year a few special Christmas cards are fun to save, if you are still receiving cards by mail. The popularity of electronic greeting cards has made paper cards in some cases a rarity. If you do receive cards and save them over a 10-year period, look back on the evolution of popular styles and color choices. You may have an interesting collection to share with future generations. ■