Growing up and continuing into adulthood, one of my favorite activities of Christmastime has been the sending and receiving of greeting cards. I took great delight in selecting appropriate cards for each recipient and displaying those I’d received around my living spaces. It has now been a long time since I’ve received a traditional Christmas card; last year, I did participate in a Facebook group postcard exchange most of which bore Christmas stamps. I have lived in Thailand for about 12 years now and proper Christmas cards are difficult to find and expensive when encountered (“imported items”). We do have New Year’s cards with pictures of the King or Buddhist temples and the like. They just don’t evoke the holiday spirit of my youth.
The custom of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was a senior civil servant who had helped set-up the new Public Record Office (now called the Post Office), where he was an Assistant Keeper, and wondered how it could be used more by ordinary people.
Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist. They designed the first card and sold them for 1 shilling each. The card had three panels. The outer two panels showed people caring for the poor and in the center panel was a family having a large Christmas dinner. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, “TO:_____” allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year. At the time, the card caused a bit of controversy because it showed a child being given a glass of wine.
While Cole and Horsley get the credit for the first, it took several decades for the Christmas card to really catch on, both in Great Britain and the United States. Once it did, it became an integral part of our holiday celebrations — even as the definition of “the holidays” became more expansive, and now includes not just Christmas and New Year’s, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice.
Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston, is credited with creating the first Christmas card originating in the United States in 1875. It was very different from Cole and Horsley’s of 30 years prior, in that it didn’t even contain a Christmas or holiday image. The card was a painting of a flower, and it read “Merry Christmas.” This more artistic, subtle approach would categorize this first generation of American Christmas cards. “They were vivid, beautiful reproductions,” says Collins. “There were very few nativity scenes or depictions of holiday celebrations. You were typically looking at animals, nature, scenes that could have taken place in October or February.”
Appreciation of the quality and the artistry of the cards grew in the late 1800s, spurred in part by competitions organized by card publishers, with cash prizes offered for the best designs. People soon collected Christmas cards like they would butterflies or coins, and the new crop each season were reviewed in newspapers, like books or films today.
In 1894, prominent British arts writer Gleeson White devoted an entire issue of his influential magazine, The Studio, to a study of Christmas cards. While he found the varied designs interesting, he was not impressed by the written sentiments. “It’s obvious that for the sake of their literature no collection would be worth making,” he sniffed. “In the manufacture of Victorian Christmas cards,” wrote George Buday in his 1968 book, The History of the Christmas Card, “we witness the emergence of a form of popular art, accommodated to the transitory conditions of society and its production methods.”
The modern Christmas card industry arguably began in 1915, when a Kansas City-based fledgling postcard printing company started by Joyce Hall, later to be joined by his brothers Rollie and William, published its first holiday card. The Hall Brothers company (which, a decade later, change its name to Hallmark), soon adapted a new format for the cards—4 inches wide, 6 inches high, folded once, and inserted in an envelope.
“They discovered that people didn’t have enough room to write everything they wanted to say on a post card,” says Steve Doyal, vice president of public affairs for Hallmark, “but they didn’t want to write a whole letter.”
In this new “book” format — which remains the industry standard — colorful Christmas cards with red-suited Santas and brilliant stars of Bethlehem, and cheerful, if soon clichéd, messages inside, became enormously popular in the 1930s-1950s. As hunger for cards grew, Hallmark and its competitors reached out for new ideas to sell them. Commissioning famous artists to design them was one way: Hence, the creation of cards by Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell, who designed a series of Christmas cards for Hallmark. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art has a fascinating collection of more personal Christmas cards sent by artists including Alexander Calder.
The most popular Christmas card of all time, however, is a simple one. It’s an image of three cherubic angels, two of whom are bowed in prayer. The third peers out from the card with big, baby blue eyes, her halo slightly askew. “God bless you, keep you and love you…at Christmastime and always,” reads the sentiment. First published in 1977, that card — still part of Hallmark’s collection — has sold 34 million copies.
Today, much of the innovation in Christmas cards is found in smaller, niche publishers whose work is found in gift shops and paper stores. “These smaller publishers are bringing in a lot of new ideas,” says Peter Doherty, executive director of the Greeting Card Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing the card publishers. “You have elaborate pop up cards, video cards, audio cards, cards segmented to various audiences.”
The sentiments, too, are different than the stock greetings of the past. “It’s not always the touchy-feely, ‘to you and yours on this festive, glorious occasion’ kind of prose,” says Doherty. “Those cards are still out there, but the newer publishers are writing in a language that is speaking to a younger generation.”
Henry Cole’s first card was a convenient way for him to speak to his many friends and associates without having to draft long, personalized responses to each. Yet, there are also accounts of Cole selling at least some of the cards for a shilling apiece at his art gallery in London, possibly for charity. Maybe Sir Cole was not only a pioneer of the Christmas card, but prescient in his recognition of another aspect of our celebration of Christmas.
It’s big business.
Despite the governing practice of the separation of church and state within American politics, there is a long-standing custom for the President and First Lady to send White House Christmas Cards each holiday season. The practice originated with President Calvin Coolidge, who was the first president to issue a written statement of peaceful tidings during the holidays in 1927. President Herbert Hoover was the first to give Christmas notes to the White House staff, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to utilize the card format (rather than the previously used notes or a written statement) that most closely resembles the Christmas cards of today.
In 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first official White House card. The cards usually depict White House scenes as rendered by prominent American artists. The number of recipients has snowballed over the decades, from just 2,000 in 1961 to 1.4 million in 2005. A gallery of Presidential Christmas cards can be found in an article on Business Insider. My favorite is the pop-up White House sent by Barack Obama in 2013.
The lowest denomination — 14 pence — of the 1990 Christmas stamps released by Isle of Man features a boy mailing Christmas cards in a red pillar post box. I’m a big fan of these; we didn’t have them in the United States but there are several different types here in Thailand. I enjoy getting my photograph taken next to them! Scott #436 was released on October 10, 1990, perforated 13×13½, and was also included in a souvenir sheet of four designs (Scott #439a).
A pillar box is a type of free-standing post box. They are found in the United Kingdom and in most former nations of the British Empire, members of the Commonwealth of Nations and British overseas territories, such as Australia, Cyprus, India, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Republic of Ireland, Malta, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Pillar boxes were provided in territories administered by the United Kingdom, such as Mandatory Palestine, and territories with agency postal services provided by the British Post Office such as Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait and Morocco. The United Kingdom also exported pillar boxes to countries that ran their own postal services, such as Argentina, Portugal and Uruguay. I suspect that the pillar box design used in Thailand originated with the British Post Office prior to the Siamese service established in 1883,
According to the Letter Box Study Group, there are more than 150 recognized designs and varieties of pillar boxes and wall boxes, not all of which have known surviving examples. The red post box is regarded as a British cultural icon. Royal Mail estimates there are over 100,000 post boxes in the United Kingdom.
The advent of the British wayside letter box can be traced to Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary of the Post Office, and his Surveyor for the Western District, and noted novelist, Anthony Trollope. Hill sent Trollope to the Channel Islands to ascertain what could be done about the problem of collecting the mail on a pair of islands. The problems identified in the Channel Islands were caused by the irregular sailing times of the Royal Mail packet boats serving the islands due to weather and tides.
Trollope subsequently arrived in Jersey in the early Spring of 1852 and proceeded to survey both islands. His recommendation back to Hill was to employ a device he may have seen in use in Paris: a “letter-receiving pillar”. It was to be made of cast iron, about 1.5 meters high, octagonal in design and painted olive green. Trollope estimated that four would be needed for Guernsey and five for Jersey. The foundry of Vaudin & Son in Jersey was commissioned to produce them and the first four were erected in David Place, New Street, Cheapside and St Clement’s Road in Saint Helier and brought into public use on November 23, 1852. Guernsey received its first three pillar boxes on February 8, 1853.
They were an instant success, despite some obvious problems with rainwater ingress. One Vaudin box still stands in Union Street, Saint Peter Port, Guernsey whilst another is in the British Postal Museum & Archive collection in London.
It is recorded in the Post Office archives that the first box in the United Kingdom was erected in Botchergate, Carlisle in 1853. This fact is commemorated today with a replica Penfold box, located between the Market Cross and the Old Town Hall, in Carlisle city center. The first six in London were installed on April 11, 1855. The earliest surviving UK designs are four Butt boxes made in Gloucester for the Western Area. These are at Barnes Cross, near Sherborne, Dorset, inside the former Britannia Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth, in the Haverfordwest town museum (formerly at Merlin’s Bridge) and in the British Postal Museum & Archive store at Debden (formerly at Ventnor railway station, Isle of Wight). All date from 1853–1859, with Barnes Cross being one of the later batch.
The oldest pillar boxes still in use by the Royal Mail are at Framlingham in Suffolk. This pair were founded by Andrew Handyside and Company of Derby in 1856. They are at Double Street and College Road. A third octagonal pillar of this type was at Gobweston in Lincolnshire and is now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln. 1856 also saw various designs introduced in Scotland and the Midlands. The postbox believed to be the oldest in Scotland, is a wall box which sits on the front of the Golspie Inn (formerly the Sutherland Arms Hotel). It carries the Royal Cypher of Queen Victoria and dates back to 1861.
Most traditional British pillar boxes produced after 1905 are made of cast iron and are cylindrical. Other shapes have been used: the hexagonal Penfolds, rectangular boxes that have not proved to be popular, and an oval shape that is used mainly for the large “double aperture” boxes most often seen in large cities like London and Dublin. In recent years boxes manufactured in glass-fiber or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic have been produced that do not follow these general outlines. These are for use in secure indoor locations such as supermarkets.
Cast iron pillar box construction comprises three distinct main parts:
- The cap sits on top of the carcass and is usually bolted down from inside. Some designs after 1965 do not have a separate cap. Caps can also be fitted with a separate bracket, normally of cast iron, which supports a Post Office Direction sign (POD) indicating the nearest Post Office.
- The door contains the aperture or posting slot. It is hinged, should display the Royal Cypher of the reigning monarch and may also be fitted with a collection plate showing the times of collection from that location. It is fitted with a brass security lock on the inside. The contractor for these locks has been the Chubb Locks company for many years. They are five-lever locks and each one can exhibit more than 6,500 combinations. There is no skeleton key for these locks. Each post box has its own set of keys and postal workers have to carry large bunches with them when clearing the boxes.
- The carcass or body of the box that supports the door and cap, and may protrude substantially down below ground level. This provides security and stability to the pillar box. There is a wirework cage inside to prevent mail falling out when the door is opened, a hinged letter chute to allow mail to fall into the collecting bag or sack and a serrated hand-guard to prevent unauthorized tampering with the mail through the aperture.
Prior to 1859 there was no standard color, although there is evidence that the lettering and Royal Cypher were sometimes picked out in gold. In 1859, a bronze green color became standard until 1874. Initially, it was thought that the green color would be unobtrusive. Too unobtrusive, as it turned out — people kept walking into them. Red became the standard color in 1874, although ten more years elapsed before every box in the UK had been repainted.
New post box designs were ordered in 1887 for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. For the first time there was a lamp-post mounted letter box for use in London squares, but which soon established themselves in rural areas. For the big cities, a double-aperture oval-shaped pillar (designated Type C) was introduced, partly to increase capacity and certainly in London, to allow mail to be pre-sorted by region, normally with apertures marked separately for “London” and “Country”. All pillar and lamp boxes now had the distinctive Imperial cypher of Victoria Regina, whilst the wall-mounted boxes continued to show only a block cypher VR. The new pillar box design saw out the reign and remained little changed until 1905, when the basic design was refined.
The Edward VII boxes now had the posting aperture as part of the door, rather than the body of the box. That eliminated the chance for mail to get caught up in the top of the box. This basic design remains the same today, having served well throughout the reigns of George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II.
An experiment of 1932 was the addition of a stamp vending machine to the end of the post box. This necessitated an oval planform for the box even though it was only provided with a single posting aperture. At one end of the oval is the stamp machine and at the other is the posting aperture. The boxes have two doors; one for clearance of mail and one for emptying the cash and reloading the stamp machines. The machines were set to vend two halfpenny stamps in exchange for one old penny, the stamps being supplied in a long continuously wound roll known as a coil. Boxes were again made in two sizes, designated Type D and Type E, and carried raised lettering on the castings indicating the position of the stamp vending machine, as well as an array of small enamel plates warning users of the danger of bent coins and the need to wait for stamps to be issued before inserting more money. Several of each have survived in use in England and in the Isle of Man.
To mark the 2012 Summer Olympics, Royal Mail, Isle of Man Post and Guernsey Post painted a pillar box gold in the home town of each Great Britain team member who won a gold medal, as well as a demonstration model near Westminster Abbey. A website mapping the gold boxes was provided. The boxes, originally intended to be repainted to the traditional red in due course, will remain gold painted permanently.
To reflect the iconic nature of the British post box and the heritage attached to them; out-of-use post boxes (especially older models) are rarely removed and instead painted black and sealed to signify to members of the public the box is no longer in use. Examples of black post boxes can be seen outside former post-offices and in conservation areas.