Christmas cards, at one time, were the postmaster’s dilemma. Cards arrived in massive quantities and kept the postman busy from November until Christmas. In today’s digital world those cards are probably a delight, viewed as job security in the ever changing digital age. How did the Christmas card come into being?
Most of us remember those early school years when we unpacked our Prang watercolor set, in the black metal case, on the first day of school.
Little did we know at that time, that those watercolor sets were named for Mr. Louis Prang. Nor did we know that Louis Prang was the man credited with bringing the Christmas card to America, by a process called Chromo-lithography. Archive research reveals an article in:
The article titled “Popularizing Art” by James Parton records the history of lithography as an accidental discovery in about 1793. Alois Senefelder was trying to make a weekly wash list for his washerwoman. He had no paper or liquid ink with which to write that day and had gathered limestone rocks for another project. Creative thinking led him to use water to wet the stone and then he tried writing on it with his grease pencil. After doing this, he decided to use diluted aqua-fortis(nitric acid)to pour over the stone and this made the letters stand out in relief. By covering his letters with his inking pad, Alois found that the film of water kept the oily printer’s ink from staining the stone but allowed the letters to stay inked. He then applied pressure to the stone and was able to imprint the letters.
Thus the very first Christmas card was invented. Soon it was all the rage in England. The early Christmas cards were in postcard form and many were very whimsical in nature.
Research brings us back to Louis Prang. How did Louis Prang fit into the Christmas card history?
Louis Prang began his craft as a young man in Prussia working in his father’s calico factory. Louis was detailed in his use of art and color because his work required printing fabric that ladies were going to wear. Later after fleeing Prussia he arrived in America and eventually settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The German element in the United States, 1909: https://archive.org/stream/germanelement02fausrich#page/110/mode/2up
In Massachusetts, Louis opened a small printing company only to be thwarted by the beginning of the Civil War. However, a friend convinced him to print maps of the battles so that the general public would know where the war was being fought.
Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “The army map of Georgia” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/dd728b10-0034-0135-fe25-0577532e55cfp.354
In the meantime Louis Prang was perfecting his craftsmanship.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Birthday, New Year and text cards depicting flowers, butterflies, bees, berries and fall foliage.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1880. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-bae5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Suddenly it made sense for him to market his cards in the United States.
Christmas cards became popular and collectible items.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Christmas cards depicting animals celebrating Christmas, stockings, food, mistletoe and a decorative design.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1884. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-bda8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Louis Prang was a forward thinking entrepreneur and a firm believer in art education. He was largely responsible for art taught in schools. Many art books were published because of him and he promoted art into the everyday household with his chromo-lithographs. There was a large debate, which occurred in the publications of that time, over the printing of original works by chromo-lithography. Many arguments happened over the validity of printing “fake” art. Louis was mindful of the fact that it was original work that he was replicating and permission needed to be granted. He would meet the artist and then make arrangements to print the copies. The author of this article had this to say regarding that subject:
Read the entire articles:
by James Parton
The Atlantic Monthly
Vol. XXIII No. CXXXVII
Vol. 122 No. 19
November 7, 1936
Postmen can blame it on Old Horsley
by Patrick Ryan
Vol. 6 No. 9
Other sources consulted:
Freeman, Larry. Louis Prang: color lithographer. Giant of a man. Century House Inc., 1971.