Saturday, December 15, 2012


In the 1830s, Sir Henry Cole, who was the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, used to buy pretty papers on which to write his annual Christmas greetings to friends and political allies. It was long, laborious process – cutting the papers to size, handwriting each and every “Merry Christmas,” signing his name. How much easier his annual work would be if he could send the same message to all!

So in 1840, he hired a friend of his – John Calcott Horsley – to make a single, well-designed card (more durable than paper) that could be reproduced in unlimited numbers – the first mass-produced Christmas card!  The first run was 1,000, a second run brought the total to 2,050 (what an unusual press run – what’s with that last fifty?), and sold for a shilling apiece.

Horsley probably made some Christmas cash, and Sir Henry must have had a much easier holiday!

But that was Britain; what about here in the USA?

Louis Prang brought the Christmas card to the United States in 1875 (see LOUIS PRANG’S INTERLOPER post of 9/15). At that time, Christmas cards were not necessarily scenes of winter wonderlands, decorated trees and Santas; oftentimes they were flowers, pretty woodland drawings, colorful birds, etc. By 1881, Prang was printing 5 million a year (five million!) and here are two of them, pulled from a collection of family cards.

The card at the top of this post is a Louis Prang card of 1879. It’s very small – 4” x 2-1/2” – a little bigger than a business card – and was either hand-delivered or sent in a separate envelope. The sender (Frances Sabin) gave it to her sister (Ethel Sabin); it’s a sure bet she didn’t mail it! Anyway, strawberries, daisies, lovebirds? Not your standard Yuletide symbols.

That same year, Frances and Ethel’s mother (Roxanna Adams Sabin) received another Louis Prang from an Aunt Harriet. I have absolutely no idea who Aunt Harriet is, but it doesn’t look particularly Christmassy either.

This last one is not a Prang, but at least it’s beginning to look a little bit like Christmas! It was sent to Roxanna in 1883 by her brother Samuel G. Adams (the Boston Police Superintendent I wrote about on October 20). It’s quite big – 7” x 5” – and it actually has glitter! Every place on the card that has snow also has a light layer of glitter (you can see it in the tree on the right; it appears as yellow/orange dots and smears). For some reason, I thought glitter was a modern day elaboration, but this proves me wrong!

It’s a stunner, isn’t it? I’ve got more in this collection; will post some next week as we move into the Official Christmas Season!

Cast of Characters:

Frances Taylor Sabin and Ethel Wheeler SabinFrances married John Allen Gould; they were my great-grandparents.
Roxanna Wilder Adams Sabin – Frances and Ethel’s mother; my gg-grandmother.
Samuel Gibson Adams – Roxanna’s brother, Police Superintendent, Boston

Back on November 10, I posted a piece about a postcard written in code – a postcard written to Gertrude Wentworth from Burleigh Esancy in 1910. I never posted the decoded message, so here goes:


  1. Cards, much like the celebrations have evolved over time, for better, or for worse?!?... I remember those old glittery cards. My mom kept some from long ago.

    1. Good to hear from you, TB! And, speaking of old cards, have you seen the old fringed ones? I'll post a couple next week -- they're pretty fun!

    2. Looking forward to your findings!!

  2. Hi Deb! Sorry that I am so late. Very interesting history of Christmas postcards. Isn't it funny how somebody's good idea can effect us all forever? I have some old postcards with glitter on them too.

    Hope that all is going well for you. Crazy around here, but I think that things are looking up.

    Kathy M.

    1. Things are crazy everywhere, I think; don't apologize for being late -- I'm always glad to see that you've stopped by! Peace to you and yours...

  3. Lovely series of cards.
    Happy Christmas