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Summerlike Christmas Cards Were The Rage A Century Ago
Judging from the typical Christmas card of 120 years ago, a person unfamiliar with the holiday might have concluded -- understandably -- that it was celebrated in the middle of summer rather than the bleak first week of winter.
The majority of Christmas cards of the 1870s and 1880s featured vividly colorful images of green foliage, flowers in full bloom, birds, animals ranging from kittens to fish, or stylishly attired children.
It's a far cry from the Santa Clauses, peaceful winter countrysides, snowmen, blazing hearths or similar illustrations that are standard fare on many of the more than 2 billion Christmas cards Americans purchased this year.
The Christmas card was born in England, where the first one was produced in 1846. The cards were manufactured in significant quantities in the 1860s, and by the 1870s a number of firms specializing in Christmas cards were established in England. These firms exported a portion of their output to the United States.
The ``father of the American Christmas card'' was German immigrant Louis Prang, who from the mid-1870s until 1890 produced cards in his plant near Boston. Prang's cards became famous for the excellence of their printing and for the exquisite artistry of their illustrations.
The latter quality was due to the fact that for a number of years Prang sponsored an annual art competition in which large cash prizes were awarded to the winning entries. These entries were then reproduced on that year's cards. Many talented professional artists submitted their work to the Prang contest.
Prang's entry into the Christmas card industry was a ``decisive turning-point in the history of the Christmas card,'' said George Buday in the 1971 book, ``The History of the Christmas Card.''
``The Christmas card ceased to be a mere European or English peculiarity. . . . [Prang's] production of cards designed and printed in America not only established a line of trade which grew into the tremendous American greeting card industry of today, but led to the creation of a market and an extension of the custom on such a worldwide scale that it can now almost be described as universal.''
But why the proliferation of out- of-season imagery on so many cards in the late 1800s?
Buday offers a couple of explanations. The first being ``the coincidence of our Christmas season with the ancient winter solstice traditions. Spring and summer subjects on Christmas cards fit well into this theory, envisaging amidst wintry cold and sleet the promises and pleasures of the coming year.''
In addition, Buday cites the ``language of flowers,'' in which different flowers symbolized a specific emotion or character trait, which was extraordinarily popular in the Victorian era.
``It may be taken for granted,'' Buday writes, ``that amongst the people who exchanged greeting cards at Christmas the emblematic significance of plants and flowers was a known and understood convention. . . . A flowery Christmas card could be read as a letter.''
Although the British imports and Prang's versions dominated the American market in the 1870s and 1880s, the village of Northford in the south-central Connecticut town of North Branford was also experiencing its own heyday as a center of Christmas card production.
Sometime around 1870, two brothers -- Henry Stevens and David Stevens Jr. -- ``established a thriving card business in Northford,'' writes Northford historian Dr. Henry C. Miller in his article, ``Inventors and Industries in Northford, 1840-1880'' in the Journal of the New Haven Colony Historical Society.
``They made the usual business cards for men, but their great success lay in Christmas cards, valentines and `sparking' cards, carrying appropriate messages. By 1871 they were experimenting with highly ornamented Christmas cards. The Stevens brothers tried to keep up with the widespread demand for their Christmas cards but soon found themselves competing with twenty- five other Christmas card companies -- all in Northford. For ten years Northford led the industry in production of Christmas cards.''
The Connecticut Business Directory for 1889 lends support to this story, listing nine card printers in Northford. One of them was S.M. Foote, whose sample book for 1887 features a single Christmas card, the size of a modern business card. It is illustrated with strawberry blossoms and fruit, with a simple ``Wishing you a Merry Christmas'' printed in tiny italics.
Victorian-era Christmas cards were not tossed as soon as the holidays were over, but were often preserved in scrapbooks as mementos to be re-examined as the years passed.
First published Dec. 25, 1998