Two copies of the world’s first Christmas card ever made are in Kansas City

Photo from Hallmark Archives

There’s no doubt that Christmas cards are a big part of the holiday season. If you’re like me, then you may have a box full of Hallmark’s keepsake cards in the back of your closet. You may not know, however, that cards have evolved over time—or that those changes are documented better in Kansas City than anywhere.

Hallmark is home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of historic greeting cards. “It’s definitely a unique collection and probably one of the largest, if not the largest, examples of Victorian Christmas cards as well as Hallmark Christmas cards,” says Samantha Bradbeer, the company’s full-time staff historian. Among those archives are two copies of the world’s first printed Christmas card.

The history of greeting cards dates back to the nineteenth century, when an increase in literacy rates, advances in printing and postal reform all contributed to their development.

Those early cards weren’t full of jingle bells and nativity scenes. In fact, many Victorian Christmas cards leaned more toward being morbid, dark and creepy—attributes people at the time found humorous. Dead robins, bloody snowmen and insects all contributed to their grotesque iconography.

“Today’s imagery of Santa Claus and lavishly trimmed Christmas trees rarely appeared on the nineteenth century cards,” Bradbeer says. “By 1885, unique and even bizarre novelty cards with silk fringe, glittered attachments and mechanical movements were popular, but the more common Christmas card motifs related to flora and fauna, seasonal vignettes and landscapes.”

Hallmark’s first Christmas card was introduced in 1915. “Early Hallmark Christmas cards were engraved with five steel dies, each printed separately on card stock that was beveled and paneled,” Bradbeer says. “Attachments, pop-ups and even sound technology were tested in the 1920s and 1930s and, although some were considered flops at the time, have now become key design elements in today’s cards.”

As sending these cards gained popularity, so did the Christmas motifs we associate with them today—trees, candles, bells and angels, just to name a few. Santa Claus is also a Christmas card theme that has changed over time. “Over the past one hundred ten years, artists have depicted Santa as tall and thin or round and jolly in blue, green or red fur-trimmed coats or bishop’s robes,” Bradbeer says. She also explains how Santa has been presented with almost every card-making process, like foil stamping, flitter and flocking, and even having glued-on white feathers as whiskers.

Just like before, Hallmark’s cards continue to change to fit any greeting card personality. This year, employees have created more than twelve hundred different cards for Christmas. “Whether Christmas reminds you of Santa or religious themes,” Bradbeer says, “Hallmark has a card that matches your idea of Christmas tradition.”

Did You Know?

Of the one-thousand printed copies of the first Christmas card, only twenty-one still exist today.

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