Christmas Missives

Posted November 9, 2016, under Gee Whillickers!

The end of year holiday season is always chock-full of traditional activities, such as throwing parties, singing on neighborhood doorsteps, giving gifts, and braving long lines to return said gifts for something we actually want. And then there is the sending of holiday greeting cards.


The use of greeting cards has a long and illustrious history. The ancient Chinese would send messages of goodwill in celebration of their New Year. Early Egyptians did so using papyrus scrolls. By the time the early 15th century rolled around, recognizable – albeit handmade – greeting cards were being exchanged throughout Europe.

These cards continued to evolve, becoming elaborate, expensive, hand-made and hand-delivered gifts in their own right. But that changed around the mid-1800s.

A Revolutionary Idea

As the story goes, Sir Henry Cole – a prominent member of Victorian society – was overwhelmed by holiday correspondence. The introduction of “Penny Post” – that is, inexpensive postage – and the English tradition of “Christmas letters” had the popular man absolutely swimming in mail.

Cole didn’t want to insult anyone by failing to respond – people took that stuff seriously back then – but there weren’t enough hours in the day to reply to everyone with personal letters.

Taken from scrapbook of Christmas and other greeting cards collected by Miss Ruth Nettlefold. Birmingham 1878-1889. Presented by Miss Nettlefold, 8 Farquhar Road, Birmingham 15. November 1950. Early and Fine Printing Collection item no. 611336

This was a time when basically everything was “artisanal.” The idea to mass-produce a reply card was revolutionary. Which of course was the idea Cole had. He commissioned a painting, had it printed up on cardboard, and left space to write names and salutations. The card included the familiar refrain: “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You.”

The card had a mixed reception. Much like today, people will find things to get offended over. Now it’s seasonal Starbucks cups; back then they were all, “I say, my good man, it would appear Sir Cole’s card jolly well encourages underage, public inebriation! I must write a strongly worded letter.”

And then they turned around and churned out cards that were much, much worse.

Image of a fan-shaped greetings card with the note "From Edith Vaughan" taken from the Gertrude Tomkinson scrapbook Christmas and New Year Greetings Cards c.1883-1890. Presented by Mrs. A. F. Dauglish in November, 1957. Early and Fine Printing Collection A741.68

Image taken from “Scraps” a scrapbook album presented to Birmingham Libraries by Sir Wilfred Martineau, Edgbaston, Birmingham in November 1963. EFP Item number 719846 A741.68

We think it’s important to point out that back in those days, opium was a major ingredient in over-the-counter cough syrup. For babies. These cards make a lot more sense when you realize that many of the holiday greeters may have been fighting off winter colds and stoned out of their minds.

Modern Messages

Today, while greeting cards remain a staple of holiday observance, the industry is declining. The reason is, of course, the Internet. People can and do send their weird-ass holiday messages with just a few mouse clicks.

But even so, all seasonal greetings are not created equal. A company sending out well-wishes to its email subscribers would do well to put forth a more polished epistle. Which, conveniently, is what we at Rigney Graphics are here to help you do!