August 20, 2012
Before the onset of high-tech social communication, the quickest way for people to spread holiday cheer was through mass-produced Christmas cards.
The oldest mass-produced Christmas card – dating back more than 160 years – can be found among the extensive special collections at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Years before greeting cards and color printing became a standard, businessman Henry Cole commissioned 1,000 ready-to-mail greeting cards to be printed and hand-colored because he was too busy to engage in the traditional English custom of writing notes with holiday greetings to friends and family.
The card is divided into three panels, each echoing traditional holiday themes. The center panel depicts a family drinking wine at a celebration, and the flanking panels illustrate charitable acts of feeding and clothing the poor.
SMU’s Bridwell Library acquired the card in 1982. It is believed that only 20 of Cole’s cards have survived to modern times. Bridwell Library’s card was signed by Cole and addressed to the engraver of the card, John Thompson (1785-1866). In addition to the card, the library also has a series of correspondence between Cole and the card’s designer, J.C. Horsley, which establishes the notion that the two were friends before the creation of the card.
Widespread commercial printing of Christmas cards began in the 1860s, when a new process of color printing lowered the manufacturing cost and the price. Consequently, the custom of sending printed Christmas greetings spread throughout England. The first American Christmas card dates from about 1850 and resembles Horsley's design.
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