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LATEST FEATURE____________________________________

Are Christmas Cards a Dying Breed?
by Bob Brooke

 

Times change. It used to be that people sent loads of Christmas cards. Some sent 100 or more. But with the rising cost of postage and less time people have to sit down and write out greeting cards, it’s no wonder that fewer people are sending them today.



Technology has also played a role in the demise of the Christmas card. Today, people other, faster ways to send greetings by Email or through social media sites like Facebook. So with fewer cards being sent, older cards have increased in collectibilty. Though we take Christmas cards for granted these days, there was a time when they were a novelty.

The First Christmas Card
The earliest known holiday greeting cards appeared around 1450 in Germany, and were primarily made from woodcuts, with the Christ Child bearing good wishes for the New Year. There is also evidence that during the 15th century, handmade greeting cards were being exchanged throughout other custom flourish in Continental Europe. By 1770, woodcuts were being replaced with finely printed and engraved cards bearing New Year's greetings. Advances in lithography, printing and mechanization, as well as the 1840 introduction of the postage stamp, continued the evolution. By the 1850s, the greeting card had been transformed from an expensive, handmade and hand-delivered gift to a popular and affordable means of personal communication.

Sir Henry Cole, a public servant, art patron, educator, and the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, would sit down and write greetings to his family and friends. But as his circle of friends grew, writing each a note took too much time. In 1843, he hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends. This first hand-colored lithographed Christmas card featured three panels. The center panel featured a three-generation family gathered around a table eating and drinking. The left panel was about feeding the hungry during the holiday season, and the right panel depicted the need to gather clothes for the needy. The greeting in the center was “Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” Of course, this type of greeting would become standard on almost every Christmas card in the future. Cole had 1,000 cards printed and those he didn’t use, he sold in a local shop. Only a dozen still exist.

Horsley's card met with the disapproval of temperance groups because it pictured a family with wine glasses raised in a toast. The controversy did nothing to dissuade the tradition. In fact, many believe it actually aided in popularizing the custom.

A Christmas card by W. C. T. Dobson entitled “The Spirit of Christmas” appeared in 1844. This second card sold more than the previous year's card. The tradition of sending Christmas greetings had caught on.

However, the tradition of. sending Christmas cards didn’t catch on right away in the United States. In 1850 R. HR Pease's Great Variety Store, located in Albany, New York, printed up a card featuring a lithographed Santa Claus with a family enjoying presents while a servant set the table for Christmas dinner. It was part card and advertisement for the store.

But it was a German immigrant, Louis Prang, who historians credit with starting the greeting card industry in the U.S. In 1856, he opened a small lithographic business near Boston. He continued to perfect the color litho-graphic process. In the early 1870s, Prang published deluxe editions of Christmas cards, which found a ready market in England. In 1875, he introduced the American public to its first complete line of Christmas cards. He invented a technique that he called "chromolithograph," which was a process that employed up to 45 color plates for one picture. Eventually, Prang closed his deluxe greeting business in the early 1890s as a result of an influx of cheap imitations from his native Germany.

An Industry is Born
Prang's timing was right. By 1898, the production of postcards eclipsed that of greeting cards. He enjoyed tremendous popularity until 1918. During this Golden Age, millions of postcards were published and at the turn of the 20th century, the New York City post office handled as many as 30,000 postcards every day. In 1909, North Americans purchased more than one billion postcards, roughly twice the amount sold, today. Most sold for about a penny apiece, with millions printed for occasions such as Christmas.

Cards cane in many shapes and sizes, shaped oval or like bells, shoes or other objects. Silk fringe and perfumed sachets on the cards were also popular.

At the turn of the 20th century, sending Christmas greetings began resurgence in the form of postcards. Gone were the elaborate Victorian cards replaced by the “penny postcard.” The period from 1900 to 1920 became the "Golden Age of Postcard Christmas Cards." It’s from this time that collectors seek the most valuable collectible cards.

Appearing on cards was an entire set of new figures and objects. Children playing in the snow, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, village scenes, birds sitting on tree branches with snow covered homes in the background, angels, nativity scenes and even boys in hunting scenes with their dogs all became popular Christmas card subjects.

The image of Santa Claus appeared in many variations. He appeared as a woodsman dressed in fur with a purple, green, blue and white coat. In European versions, Santa Claus appeared wearing a hood on his fur trimmed ;red coat. Some versions of Santa Claus are rare and valuable. Cards featuring him in an automobile or airplane are more valuable than the traditional sleigh and reindeer samples. Automobile examples can range in value from $20 to several hundred. One version of Santa Claus driving a car was made to be held to the light. This card would sell in the $200 range.

Postcards were also the inspiration behind two major greeting card publishers. The first, American Greetings Corp., was started in 1900 by Jacob Sapirstein, who borrowed $50 from a local bank in Cleveland to buy a supply of penny postcards, The first week, Sapirstein sold enough cards to drug stores and confectioners to repay the loan and have $50 for the next week's business. The most popular designs in his early product line expressed feelings using rhythmic prose and flowery Victorian artwork.



The Beginnings of Major Greeting Card Companies
Prior to World War I new American card companies began to appear. In 1910, eighteen-year-old Joyce Clyde Hall stepped off a train in Kansas City, Missouri., with nothing but two shoeboxes of postcards under his arm. Hall printed some invoices and started sending packets of a hundred postcards to dealers throughout the Midwest from his room at the YMCA. His gamble paid off. While a few of the dealers kept the cards without paying and some returned the unsolicited merchandise with an angry note, about a third sent a check. Within a couple of months, Hall had cleared $200 and opened a checking account.

That same year in Kansas City, Fred Winslow Rust began selling cards from his small bookstore. He founded Rust Craft Cards and introduced the first enveloped-style card.

But Hall had aspirations beyond postcards, and in 1915, he and his brother Rollie began creating and printing their own cards under the name Hall Brothers. Their instincts proved right. The postcard craze ended with World War I, while greeting cards continued to gain popularity and become more decorative. Initially, the Hall Brother's limited production to Christmas and Valentine's Day and thus began Hallmark Cards.

The Influence of World War I
At the start of World War I, the U.S. Government banned Christmas cards for security reasons and to conserve paper for the war effort. Later, the Government realized that cards could be a boost to morale on the war and home front. Many cards had a patriotic theme with red, white and. blue ribbons or chords attached. Verses were uplifting—“Best Christmas Wishes, Uncle Sam has called, and I can't be home to say, How much I wish you well, Each hour of Christmas Day.”



Sadly with the end of the war came the end to not only the postcards, but also to their quality. Their popularity meant more had to be produced and with mass-production concern about the beauty of the cards became secondary to merely turning them out.

Designs weren’t very elaborate and reflected the1920s-Art Deco style. They featured themes and illustrations focused on sleighs, horse and carriages and New England-style churches in muted colors. Animal themes of red-breasted birds, deer and domestic pets also continued to be popular. Postcards from this era can be found easily and are an inexpensive item to start and build a collection. In many instances, they can be found for less than a dollar.

Following World War I, new publishers entered the field and healthy competition produced important innovations in printing processes, art techniques and decorative treatments for greeting cards. During the 1920s, Christmas cards were often hand-painted and stylized cards showed the influence of Art Deco.

The folded Christmas card replaced the postcard during the Great Depression. Many poked fun at poverty and prohibition. According to Hallmark, one of their cards from 1932 actually wishes the recipient your favorite brand of holiday cheer. Movies were also becoming a major form of entertainment, and animated, stars, like Popeye and Mickey Mouse, began to appear on Christmas cards.

The Christmas Card and World War II
By 1941, there were about 100 card publishers, generating approximately $43 million in wholesale .card sales. But 1941 also brought risk to the greeting card industry, as the United States War Department carried out an initiative to conserve paper by 25 percent. To ward off potential disaster, the Greeting Card Association was formed. The association successfully launched a Defense Stamp Christmas Cards program, and V-mail greeting card promotion, both aimed to endorse defense stamps and war bonds. As could be expected, during the war years, Christmas cards with patriotic messages and flags were much in demand.

Many portrayed Santa Claus and Uncle Sam carrying flags. Messages that are common today, such as "Missing You" and "Across the Miles" were created especially for servicemen overseas. Cards from the 1940s also reflect advances in printing technology, such as the use of four-color printing. One of the most valuable cards of the war features Santa wearing an aviator cap and goggles while dropping presents out of the bomb bay door of an aircraft.

Christmas themes were employed on cards to keep the morale high on the home and war fronts. Christmas bells, holly and ivy, candy canes, sleighs traveling on snow covered bridges and Yule logs reminded everyone there was something to fight for and once the war was over there could be a return to a world at peace. Hallmark began to put glitter on its cards to give the image of snow on the trees or ground.

When the war ended and the baby boom began, photo cards became very popular. The picture of the entire family under the tree or a picture of the children visiting Santa Claus were popular themes. Mechanical cards in which the figures moved when pushed or pulled also became popular. Car makers often featured Santa and his reindeer on the roofs of houses and when the receiver pushed the reindeer, Santa went down the chimney.

The Dawning of the Modern Age
The postwar years of the 1950s brought a modern edge to Christmas cards with varied art-work, colors and themes. Hallmark Christmas cards introduced the work of many popular artists, including Andrew Wyeth,. Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses.

Other cards echoed the language and style of the “Beat” generation.

Studio cards, a long card, with a short punch line, were also introduced in the 1950s. An early Hallmark Contemporary (Studio) card showed Santa with cold war jitters as nuclear missiles loomed over his head. The message read Peace on Earth. Still another card showed Santa relaxing in his easy chair watching television.

The 1960s introduced character-driven cards such as Carlton Cards, American Greetings, Holly Hobbie, and Hallmark's Betsy Clark in the 1960s. Symbols of peace, a backlash against the Vietnam War, were also popular. The extensive use of gold foil, intricate embossing and other sophisticated production technologies were also prevalent, as were the use of Day-glow poster art and ps ychedelic colors.

The 1976 Bicentennial treated interest in all things nostalgic and images from Norman Rockwell and Currier and Ives designs became best sellers. The 1970s also saw an increase in awareness of physical fitness. The latter spawned Hallmark's line of Sporting Santa cards. By the 1980s, Santa was visibly thinner, whether he was sporting or not. There has been a renewed interest in family and home, life since the 1990s, and Christmas cards often reflect more traditional design elements,

And while e-cards are becoming increasingly popular, studies indicate that nine out of 10 Americans still prefer to get their 'Season's Greetings” the good old-fashioned way—on paper, and in the mail.

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