This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Print Room Reference Librarian.
It’s widely accepted that the first Christmas card was printed in London in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends. But it was Boston-based printer Louis Prang who introduced the Christmas card to the American public.
Louis Prang (1824-1909) was a lithographer and publisher known for his early adoption of the chromolithographic color printing process. Because his company was first to make commercially printed holiday greeting cards available to the public, Prang is often referred to as the “father of the American Christmas Card.”
Prang was born on March 12, 1824 in Breslau, Prussian Silesia, in what is now Poland. At age 13, he began an apprenticeship with his father, Jonas Louis Prang, a textile manufacturer. He studied wood and metal engraving, and learned to dye and print calico. After traveling as a journeyman printer and dyer in Europe, he returned to Prussia and became involved in revolutionary activity against the Prussian government. Prang then left for Switzerland, and soon after emigrated to the United States, settling in Boston in 1850.
By 1851, Prang was working for Frank Leslie, then the art director of Gleason’s Magazine, making wood engravings to illustrate publications. In 1856, he partnered with Julius Mayer to form Prang and Mayer, lithographic printers. Prang became sole owner of the business in 1860, and changed the name to L. Prang and Co. His firm printed business cards, advertisements and other forms of ephemera including sets of album cards. Album cards were a series of small scenes that were put into envelopes or in patented albums with hard covers, and quickly became popular collectibles in Victorian America. One example is Views of Central Park, which Prang issued as a set of three albums each depicting 12 scenic views.
In 1864, Prang returned to Europe to study the latest techniques in German lithography. He came home to Boston primed to use a new process called chromolithography. At the time, most lithographers printed black and white lithographs which were then hand colored. Chromolithography involved creating a litho stone plate for each of the colors to be printed. Some prints required up to twenty plates to create the intense color and gradation Prang envisioned. It was a costly and labor intensive process, but the quality was unmatched, and for Prang, who considered his “chromos” works of art, nothing less would do.
Prang published his first Christmas cards for the American market in 1875. Their popularity was immediate. By 1881, he was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year. Prang’s earliest cards were simple flower designs with the words “Merry Christmas.” Later cards often featured more traditional holiday motifs, some of which were adorned silk fringe, cords and tassels.
From 1880 to 1884, Prang held Christmas card design competitions, offering prizes of $1000, $500, $300 and $200 for the top four designs. The contests attracted well-know figures in the art and design world. Judges included painters John La Farge and Samuel Colman, architect Stanford White and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Prizes were awarded to American artists such as Elihu Vedder, Rosina Emmet Sherwood, and Edwin H. Blashfield.
Prang continued to publish his popular holiday cards until the early 1890s, when inexpensive postcards imported from Germany flooded the holiday greeting card market. Not willing to compromise his artistic standards in order to compete, he chose to get out out of the greeting card business and concentrate on other publishing ventures.
Nevertheless, Prang is considered the founder of the greeting card business in the United States, and retains the title “father of the American Christmas card.”