Christmas cards were partly inspired by Valentine's Day cards and New Year's cards, the oldest surviving of which was printed in 1466. Home-made cards were fashioned by children even during the reign of Queen Anne, but the popularized Christmas card as we know it wasn't invented until the mid 1800s.
There is some debate over who was the "inventor" of the Christmas card. The oldest Christmas card created for general distribution probably was created by William Egley Jr.; a 16 year-old British youth. His 3 1/2-inch- by 5 1/2-inch, preserved in the British Museum, depicts four holiday scenes and a "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" greeting with blanks after the word "To" on the top and "From" at the bottom. Industrious kid! The date on his card is clearly 1842... or 1849. The last figure is obscure, so it's difficult to say who was first.
In the year 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Calcott Horsley to paint a card showing the feeding and clothing of the poor. A center panel displayed a happy family embracing one another, sipping wine and enjoying the festivities. (So much for good intentions. The card drew criticism because showing a child enjoying a sip of wine was considered "fostering the moral corruption of children.") "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You" was printed on that first Christmas card. Legend says Sir Henry Cole didn't send any Christmas cards the following year, but the custom became popular anyway.
Others say the date of this story was in 1847. They agree that the first Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole who worked for the British Postal Service, and an artist he hired named John Horsley. Cole was too busy to write his own greetings, so he hired Horsley to design a card for him. One thousand of these cards were printed and could be mailed for a penny a piece.
The criticism it drew may have contributed to its popularity. By the Christmas season of 1847, a number of people were giving out Christmas cards of their own. Had it not been for the controversy over Horsley's card, many of these new card givers may never have considered it.
The early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a fad that would soon pass. They did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers.
In 1875, Louis Prang, a German immigrant to the U.S., opened a lithographic shop with $250 and published the first line of U.S. Christmas cards. His initial creations featured flowers and birds, unrelated to the Christmas scene. By 1881, Prang was producing more than five million Christmas cards each year. His Yuletide greetings began to feature snow scenes, fir trees, glowing fireplaces and children playing with toys. His painstaking craftsmanship and lithographic printing have made his cards a favorite of collectors today.
Prang received most of his recognition however from his Christmas card contests that he ran. Every year he would enlist of the help of well-known figures in the American art world to judge the entrants. Winners would receive cash prizes. He further involved the public by allowing them to vote for their favorite cards, as well. This "Public Prize" was conducted apart from the professional judges and the winners were also awarded cash prizes.
Christmas card information from Holiday Decorations