Louis Prang and the American Christmas Card

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					Louis Prang and the American Christmas Card.

          It was a nineteenth-century custom of ladies and gentlemen in England to present a visiting card
upon arrival at a home or a place of business. In America, business was the objective and the calling card
became the business card.
          In England the style of card changed with the seasons and with fashion. It became popular to
deliver Christmas greetings in the form of a printed card. The very first Christmas cards were printed in
London in 1843, but gained wider popularity when Charles Goodall & Sons began priting them in the
1860’s. But it was going to be an American printer who introduced the custom of sending Christmas cards
to the Americans.
          Louis Prang, of Boston, was America’s leading chromolithographer. He printed high quality art
reproductions of some of Americas best artists. Other lithographers would print black on white lithographs
and then hand color the prints. Chromolithography involved creating a litho stone for each of the colors to
be printed. Many prints could require up to twenty litho stone plates to be used. Each color registered in
succession. It was expensive and labor intensive, but the quality could not be matched.
          Prang was born into a printing family in Germany. He left to avoid political prosecution after
being through accused of being involved in a revolutionary movement. He made his way to America
through Bohemia and Switzerland. After Several business failures he was able to establish “L. Prang &
Company, Lithographers”. His early work consisted of maps and collector’s cards, but his love was art.
          He was a serious perfectionist and moved back to Europe to study the most current printing
techniques to reproduce paintings. When he returned to America he set about to match the quality of
printing that he had studied in Europe. The American market was expanding, but the quality of his work
found a limited market. He sought to export to Europe and sent a line of business cards to be exhibited in
the Vienna Exposition of 1837.
          His cards consisted of multicolor floral designs with the companies name printed in the middle of
the card. They were a hit and the orders began to come in from foreign customers. The wife of his London
agent suggested he follow the British custom of inserting the holiday greetings at Christmas time. His sales
expanded even more and, in 1875, he introduced a line of Yule cards to the American market.
          The cards were expensive costing anywhere from a few cents to over a dollar. In addition to the
standard Christmas illustrations, there were atypical butterflies, birds, cherubs and an early version of Santa
Claus. All were done in a very Victorian style. The custom of mailing cards began to catch on and the
market for the cards expanded greatly. Prang’s company was soon doing up to five million cards each year.
          He never allowed the quality of his cards to drop, but the business could not compete with the
cheaper competition. Prang retired from the business in 1897 and devoted the remainder of his working life
to promoting art education for children. He traveled widely promoting his educational techniques and
materials. His death came in California in 1909.
          Today over 800 companies print over two billion Christmas cards each year. Louis Prang printer,
educator and patriarch of the American Christmas card industry.