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Things That Matter: An early Christmas card

It’s that time of year when mailboxes are overflowing with cards from family and friends. Sending Christmas cards is a time-honored tradition. Today, Christmas cards make up 25 percent of the greeting card industry, worth a colossal $2 billion.

The first Christmas cards were commercially produced in Britain in 1843. For most people, Christmas cards were too expensive to buy and mail, and they didn’t catch on in the United States until more than 30 years later. That was when a Boston printer named Louis Prang began mass producing inexpensive Christmas cards in the United States.

Prang’s cards were colorful chromolithographs, with images of flowers, plants or children accompanied by a Christmas greeting. His business became wildly profitable and spawned an entire industry. Prang became known as “the father of the American Christmas card.”

His success inspired other printers to produce Christmas cards. Their quality varied from Prang’s high standards to cheap copies. These postcards were very affordable to the average person. Some were religious, but many were humorous, nostalgic or just plain cute. By 1915, the folded Christmas card mailed in an envelope gained popularity. Those trends have continued to the present day.

This humorous Christmas postcard was created by Louis Prang in 1886. Under the words “Merry Christmas,” it shows an inkwell that has tipped over and spilled its contents. It reads, “You’d better look out for your actions this year, there’s many a very sad lot arises in unguarded moments, my dear, to make one’s whole lifetime a...” The last word is covered with spilled ink. So, the message is a poetic pun, a blot of spilled ink and a blot on one’s character, perhaps a humorous reminder to be a better person.

Someone enjoyed this Christmas postcard enough that they passed it on to a friend and wrote in the margins ““eh!” and “ha! ha!” on the front and “Too good to keep,” on the reverse in pencil. Since this postcard is at the La Crosse County Historical Society, it was probably traded in La Crosse.

This Christmas postcard and others are available for viewing in our online collections database at www.lchshistory.pastperfectonline.com.

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