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A winning design: Prang’s Christmas card contests of the 1880s

Have you ever wondered how companies pick their holiday card designs? How do they know what will sell? During the 1880s, Boston lithographer Louis Prang had an innovative answer: contests. He sponsored contests for holiday card designs, where both judges from the art world and consumers had the opportunity to help select the best designs.

Prang is credited with popularizing the Christmas card in the United States. Beginning in the 1840s, other firms had issued a few examples as business tokens. Prang’s cards drew on British models that were intended for the exchange of more personal sentiments during the holiday season.

A black and white card showing an illustration of a family and a message of Merry Christmas.
A greeting from merchant R. H. Pease in Albany, New York, is considered the first American Christmas card. The museum doesn’t own a copy; this image is courtesy of the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.

Prang’s artists, both men and women, drew angels and animals, birds and flowers, childhood scenes, and religious subjects for the greeting cards and other printed items the firm produced. These lithographs, known as chromos, from the Greek chroma, for color, were printed from multiple stones in vivid colors.

An illustration of a still life with a small nativity scene on the wall.
Charles C. Coleman’s still-life with a small Nativity scene won third prize in 1881. The museum’s Archives Center holds a proof book that shows the progressive printing of 19 colors for this card. 

By 1880, Prang’s success with greeting cards at home and abroad demanded more and more artwork. The firm conducted four contests between the spring of 1880 and the fall of 1884 to solicit new designs. Both male and female artists competed for prizes that ranged from $1000 for first place to $200 for fourth place. Some winners also received contracts to design additional cards.

A ballot with places to select the top four prizes for art.
Judges used ballots like this one to vote for the best design.

How were the contests decided? The original sketches in oil or watercolor were displayed in New York and Boston art galleries, where they were judged by panels of artists and retailers. Then consumers could view the designs and vote for their favorites. The winner of that competition received the "popular" prize and their artwork was produced as a card along with the "artistic" award winners (as determined by the panel of experts).

These contests were especially important for women artists who had fewer opportunities to exhibit their artwork, and women achieved significant successes. Of the 20 winning designs chosen during the contest’s five-year span, 10 were submitted by women. Painter and designer Rosina Emmet won first prize in 1880 and fourth prize in 1881.

A woman in a portrait with a hat.
Portrait of Rosina Emmet, courtesy of the Archives of American Art.
A sleeping woman kissed by a cherub.
Emmet also created several cards for Prang such as this one of a sleeping woman kissed by a cherub holding mistletoe above her head.

Her friend Dora Wheeler won second prize in 1881 and first prize in 1882, plus commissions for designs for the following year. Both women came from artistic families, and they studied with the painter William Merritt Chase. They worked with Dora’s mother, Candace Wheeler, to design textiles and wallpapers for the Associated Artists workshop in New York, which was affiliated with Tiffany & Company.

A sage green card with three women on it.
Dora Wheeler’s 1881 design won second prize.
A sage green card with a moon and four women.
Dora Wheeler’s 1882 design of a poor mother and her children receiving “Good Tidings of Great Joy” won first prize in both the artistic and popular categories.

Other female winners included Anne Goddard Morse, who won fourth prize in 1880 for her design of children with holly branches, and Florence Taber, who placed fourth in 1882 for a design of children gathering holly in a snow storm.

Four children hold sprigs of greenery on the cover of this card.
Anne Goddard Morse of Providence, Rhode Island, won fourth prize in 1880 for this design.

Lizbeth Bullock Humphrey designed many cards for Prang. She won second and third prizes in the 1882 contest, and she also captured the popular vote in 1884, the final year of the contest.

A sketch of a woman wearing a scarf.
Portrait of Lizbeth Bullock Humphrey.
An old man reads to children in front of a fire.
Lizbeth Humphrey designed a series of cards that featured New England poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. The Longfellow card includes a verse from ‘The Children’s Hour,’ and the fireplace tiles suggest the topics of his other poems.

After being inundated with submissions, Prang paused the contest in 1883, and he changed the format in 1884. He selected 22 American artists whom he commissioned to create designs for cards. They were then invited to submit their work in competition for prizes determined by a panel of New York-area stationery retailers who judged which designs they thought would achieve the highest popular demand. That year the top winners were all men: C. D. Weldon won first prize; Will H. Low took second; Thomas Moran, third; and Frederick Dielman, fourth. Lizbeth Humphrey won a fifth prize based on the popular vote for her ‘Boston’ card. After the New York exhibition closed, the collection of artwork was shown in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts and in Chicago at the Art Institute.

A card with three women in front of a curtain, on the reverse is a sketch of Boston and a poem.
Lizbeth Humphrey’s ‘Boston’ card took the popular vote in 1884. Her design shows children taking a bow after presenting a holiday entertainment, perhaps caroling.

These holiday cards, and the design contests that promoted them, gave a real boost to the employment of women and their acceptance as artists at the end of the 19th century. Women known as finishers pasted the cards onto satin padding or added fringe, tassels, hanging cords, and other decorative touches. They worked within an aesthetic and cultural tradition full of embellishment and detail that may seem excessive to modern tastes. The Prang firm also produced larger prints for framing and materials for art education. The wide range of printed products provided employment to hundreds of women—from artists to finishers—over several decades.

An illustration showing women working at a table.
After designs had been selected, women known as finishers helped create the cards. 

 

The Norcross Greeting Card Collection in the museum’s Archives Center consists of cards made and collected by the Norcross Greeting Card Company and the Rust Craft Greeting Card Company. The collection includes hundreds of antique greeting cards, dating mostly from the late 19th century, collected by both companies and their officers. Many of these antique cards were used in the Norcross Traveling Greeting Card Exhibition prepared in the mid-20th century. Other Prang cards, and the papers of Rosina Emmet and her family, can be found in collections held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

The female artists and their work for Prang were featured in the museum’s 1994 exhibition, With Pen & Graver: Women Graphic Artists before 1900; the catalog is still available. An article about the competitions by Jane Bayard Curley, “The Advent of the American Christmas Card,” appeared in Nineteenth Century Magazine, the magazine of the Victorian Society of America, volume 22, number 2, fall 2002.

Helena E. Wright is Curator of Graphic Arts in the Division of Work & Industry.