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Louis Prang and the Christmas Card

The general exchange of Christmas cards, taken for granted today, dates back only a little over three decades. Louis Prang is sometimes called the father of the Christmas card. This Boston originator of chromolithography was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1824, the son of a calico manufacturer.

Trained as a colorist, he did creditable work in this phase of textile manufacture until the late 1840's, when he found himself on the losing side of a German revolution and was forced to leave hurriedly for Bohemia, then for Switzerland, and thence to America. He landed in New York in April, 1850, found no work there, moved on to New England, and settled in Boston where he took up wood engraving as a business.

Years of unlucky partnerships followed until 1860 when the firm name became L. Prang & C.o., the silent partner being his wife, Rosa. Within the next decade, he perfected his process of lithographic printing in full colors and eventually became one of America's important publishers of "chromos," as he named them. He intended to use the term as a trademark for his best prints, but it later suffered at the hands of other less skilled makers.

His first Christmas cards were produced in 1874 and were exported to England where Christmas greeting cards had been in use since about 1860. In America, there had been some use of these imported cards, many of them bearing the imprint of Raphael Tuck & Co., an outstanding English firm in the field of artistic color printing. The American public, however, had remained largely indifferent to them.

In 1876 Prang tried out an assortment of Christmas cards here. They sold so well that he soon established annual competitions for designs which well-known artists entered. One was the artist Captain Harry Beard who painted , the originals of most of Prang's prize holiday cards as well as those of his competitors. Captain Beard was the brother of Daniel Carter Beard who originated the Boy Scout movement and also wrote the famous American Boys' Handy Book.

These late nineteenth-century Christmas cards were, like the valentines of the time, elaborate creations. Some of them even sported silk fringe. The double-faced card measured five and one-quarter by four and one-half inches and framed with a one-inch fringe. Done by a contemporary of Prang's, "Wirths Bros. & Owen," about 1885, it shows two Old-World scenes in soft pastel tones of brown, green, and grey-blue with traces of powdered mica for snow. One side shows a small country church and the other a little chapel, both with a large rayed five-point star in the upper corner. Lettering on one side includes "Christmas Greeting" and "Joy, Peace and Hope" and "God's blessing be with thee." Beneath each view appears "N0.256 Copyright" and the name of the lithographer.

In the late 1880's, cards with floral designs appeared, both single and double-faced, with and without fringe. These floral motifs caught the sentimental fancy of the time and because increasingly popular. From such modest beginnings, Louis Prang started something which he could neither have foreseen nor believed possible-the twentieth-century greeting-card industry.

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