Jean McClelland: A handwritten Christmas tradition

December 23, 2018 GMT

Sending Christmas cards seems to be a dying tradition even though some of us hold on to the annual event. Today rather than addressing fifty cards it’s easier to send a note out on social media to friends and family wishing them a happy holiday. As traditions pass often it will create collectibles and this is just such the case with Christmas cards.

Christmas cards were the result of people using their communication technology of the day to wish each other well during the season. Their technology was a handwritten letter that was laborious for many so when the standardized card became available it had a ready market.

Henry Cole was the culprit who found his address book was brimming with folks he needed to acknowledge, so he wanted to streamline the process. He was an accomplished organizer and had distinguished himself already by being instrumental in reforming the British postal service so a letter could be sent by a flat-rate price to any destination. Being an organizer, he envisioned a standard Christmas letter that could be sent to one and all with a simple signature. Not being an artist, he asked his friend and illustrator John Horsley to design just such a card.

The card Horsley designed had a jovial family toasting the recipient of the card and it simply read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The card was such a hit that Cole sold copies of it for a shilling apiece to others who thought his idea was brilliant. And so it was with the card idea spreading from Great Britain to the United States where the idea really took on a life of its own.

In America Louis Prang picked up on Cole’s idea and began distributing cards for sale. Between 1905 and 1915, major card companies such as Hallmark, Gibson, American Greetings and Norcross were born. Even so, Christmas post cards were more popular than folded cards until mid-century. Collectors of post cards usually value holiday cards more than others.

Holiday cards are interesting and fun to collect, plus they take up very little space in storage and are reasonable in their pricing. Those from the early 1900s would probably hold more value than others however there are always one or two in any collectible field that have an extraordinary price.

As this tradition fades, those cards that are individual and elaborate from our times might have some value in the future. Only time will tell, but, even so, the sentiment remains the same today as it was over 150 years ago. I wish you all “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year.”

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.