href="/christmas/overview">Christmas greeting cards were a byproduct of the cheap postal service in Victorian-era England, when sending annual holiday letters became a required ritual, particularly among the upper classes. As a popular educator and arts patron (who would eventually become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum), Henry Cole had more holiday letters to write than most, and it was this pressure that inspired him to create the first Christmas card in 1843.
Instead of responding individually to each of his contacts, Cole asked an artist friend named J.C. Horsley to design him a card that could be simply signed and mailed. The design featured a family raising a toast at its center, with images of people helping the poor on either side. Though other prominent Britons quickly jumped on the bandwagon, including Queen Victoria herself, it took a few decades for Christmas cards to become a widespread tradition.
Across the pond, the first American Christmas card was printed in 1875 by Louis Prang at his shop near Boston. The card was decorated with a painting of a flower and the classic greeting, “Merry Christmas.” As more publishers distributed seasonal cards, their unique designs became popular for collecting and pasting into scrapbooks.
Mass-produced Christmas cards took a leap forward after a Kansas City printing company founded by Joyce Hall and his brothers created their first holiday design in 1915. Instead of the traditional postcard style, the company switched to folded or book-style greeting cards that would be mailed in an envelope.
The innovative design stuck, and Hall Brothers grew into Hallmark, one of the largest card companies in the world. The company eventually used its clout to commission Christmas cards from famous artists like Norman Rockwell in addition to its staff of designers. President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally consulted with Joyce Hall before issuing the first official White House cards, which featured a portrait of Abraham Lincoln—painted by Eisenhower!—in 1953.
Hallmark’s top-selling design, which debuted in 1977, featured an image of three cherubic angels, two bowed in prayer and a third staring out from the card. The design is still in production today, and has sold more than 34 million copies.