Louis Prang, "the father of the Christmas card," was born in Breslau, Germany, and came to the US in 1850. He soon established a lucrative commercial lithographic company in Boston. He founded the Prang Co., which later merged with (bought? ate?) Dixon and Ticonderoga. They make markers and crayons and things.

Perhaps the greatest of his many innovations was the development of a multi-color printing process which incorporated as many as 20 separate shades in one print. The details were so sharp that artists were sometimes unable to distinguish their own works from the reproductions, when hung side by side on a wall.

He became the best-known printer of popular chromolithography in America, producing maps, cards, books, and artistic prints. He sold thousands of reproductions of popular oil paintings - the chubby children and boring sheepy landscapes we identify as classic Victorian art. Because of their subtle, opaque quality, his chromolithographs looked a lot like actual watercolors, and were instantly popular.

At the Vienna Exposition in 1873, he distributed small business cards that had designs of flowers with a ribbon scroll for the name. It was the suggestion of a bystander that the scroll on be filled in with a Christmas greeting and be sold as a holiday card. One of the earliest cards featured the autograph of Charles Dickens. Taking full advantage of his technology and well-known name, Prang employed the finest artists he could find. Card painters included Frederick Church, Arthur Tait and Winslow Homer. Longfellow, Tennyson and William Cullen Bryant were among those hired to write verses. No shit.

To enhance originality, Prang began holding Christmas card design contests in 1880. In 1885, Prang gave prizes for essays on Christmas cards written by women. With celebrity judges, lavish celebrations and prizes from $200 to $2,000 (please think about how much money that was in the 1800s, class), Prang's contests soon paid off in publicity, becoming enormous media events. The competitions were instantly copied by rival printers in England.

Prang's greeting cards ranged from 50 cents to $15 each (again, these are the 1800s we're talking about). They sold well until cheaper German cards flooded the market. Refusing to lower his standards, Prang quit the business.

His cards are highly collectible and can usually be identified by a tiny "L. Prang and Co., Boston" in the bottom margin. Occasionally, Prang left only a rose symbol (a veiled sign of affection for his wife, Rose) or disguised his signature under a tiny shoe or on a leaf.

When in Boston, be sure to stop by 60, 62, and 68 Louis Prang Street, for a nice visit to the Louis Prang Apartments.

Louis Prang died in 1909. But before that, he had one hell of a beard.

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