Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th century.
Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” a Guid New Year
Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity.
A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843
With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on.
By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm.
As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.
As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.
Not all manufacturers were as concerned with quality. Many of them relied on trite and overly sentimental images to decorate their greetings.
In 1885, The Decorator and Furnisher magazine criticized the industry for its ubiquitous imaginings of “pantaletted young ones” singing in snowstorms and “angels floating in mid-air bearing a baby.
Such tiresome subjects, the article lamented, created “no agreeable sensations.” Also troublesome were the poor production values.
That same year, The Art Amateur magazine faulted a British manufacturer for offering a card that featured the image of a cherub whose head was “too intangibly connected with her body even for a disembodied spirit.”
Industry critics predicted that the American public would soon tire of Christmas cards. But then, in the early 1900s, improvements in image reproduction technology allowed the greeting-card market to surge to new heights.
In 1900, The British Medical Journal applauded a new series of Christmas cards with “platino-panel reproductions” that resembled photographic prints. The variety of subjects featured on the new cards also increased—sporting themes, landscapes, and patriotic drawings of men in regimental uniforms.
Take a look at Macy’s best-selling holiday gifts of 1948—which LIFE compiled, along with the number of each item sold and at what price—and it’s immediately apparent that things have changed since then.
For starters, the gifts then skewed more toward the practical.
Such everyday items as a pair of nylons or a ballpoint pen, the department store’s third- and fourth-highest-selling items that season, may ignite little excitement in today’s gift receiver, who has been conditioned to want little more than the latest Apple product.
Second, there is a conspicuous absence of anything technological, whereas nearly seven decades later, more than two thirds of holiday shoppers plan to purchase electronics for their loved ones.
Then again, the rise of personal technology was still decades away, as these were the days when fewer than 10% of households even had a TV set.
Rather than instruments of entertainment, gift-givers wrapped up objects that were wearable or edible, and immediately usable: a pair of pajamas, a bottle of scotch or that perennial favourite, some sturdy slippers.
Basic, to be sure—but sure to be put to frequent use.
1863: Detail from Thomas Nast’s illustration ‘A Christmas Furlough’ for the front page of a 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Obviously crafted for the Union side of the American Civil War Conflict.
As time went by, more and more was added to the Santa Claus legend.
The cartoonist Thomas Nast established the bounds for Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough”.
In later Nast drawings a home at the North Pole was added, as was the workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice.