Louis Prang & Co. Christmas Card Competitions
Whether paper or, now, digital, Christmas cards have been a highlight of the holiday season for nearly one hundred and fifty years. The Hudson River Museum has a large collection of all types of holiday cards, including many by the prominent maker Louis Prang & Co. During the Gilded Age, Boston printmaker Louis Prang almost single-handedly brought Christmas cards to the American public. These early cards were decorative prints and featured religious and non-religious designs, such as floral imagery. Similar to what would later be called postcards, they were neither folded nor designed with much space for a personalized message—not the traditional holiday images we may now be used to.
In the mid-nineteenth century, German advances in color-print technology made it possible to reproduce compositions with depth and vibrancy. Prang, a German immigrant, based his highly successful Boston company on this new chromolithography, a method of printing lithographs in color. Previously, printers had to employ artists to hand-color their images. Louis Prang & Co. held Christmas card design competitions from 1880 to 1884, an ingenious and elaborate form of public promotion. They selected four winning designs based on original oil and watercolor paintings exhibited in New York and Boston galleries. The judges were well-known artists, designers, and architects, and the prize money ranged from $200 for fourth place to $1,000 for first place, which is equivalent to more than $20,000 today! The winners’ card designs received national attention in art publications and newspapers, and were mass-produced for sale.
From the first year, many of the hundreds of competition applicants were women. Two New York women artists, Rosina Emmet (1854–1948) and Dora Wheeler (1856–1940) won prizes in the 1880 and 1881 card competitions; examples of these artists’ winning cards are part of the Hudson River Museum collection (figs. 1–3). Emmet and Wheeler were close friends and belonged to affluent and artistic families living in New York. Both women were raised by artist mothers, and Dora Wheeler’s mother, Candace Thurber Wheeler, a textile and interior designer, was a mentor and collaborator for both women. Emmet and Wheeler studied painting with the artist William Merritt Chase in his New York studio, at the Art Students League, and at an academy in Paris.
Candace Wheeler and Louis Comfort Tiffany, the stained-glass artist, collaborated on interior design projects and created a business, Tiffany & Co. Associated Artists, in 1881, which decorated the homes of New York elites like Cornelius Vanderbilt II and the established author Mark Twain. Dora Wheeler and Rosina Emmet designed textiles and wallpaper for the company, working with Candace who directed the textile department.
Dora Wheeler and Rosina Emmet both married and raised children while pursuing their artistic careers. Wheeler worked as a painter, designer, and illustrator and continued to collaborate with her mother, Candace, who founded her own women-operated textile company, Associated Artists, in 1883. Emmet also continued to design for Candace Wheeler until her marriage in 1887, after which she worked primarily as a painter and illustrator. All three women were involved in the decoration of The Women’s Building (fig. 4) at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, Prang created greeting cards for a variety of holidays, including New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and Easter, as well as hundreds of decorative prints. The company employed women artists as “finishers” or “embellishers”, who added details such as silk fringe, tassels, and cords. The caliber of artists’ designs and materials used was important to Prang, and he viewed the cards and prints produced by his company as a form of art education. Prang prints were a form of art accessible and affordable to many Americans and became cherished possessions, which they used to decorate their homes and their descendants often donated to museums.
Rebecca Simons, Collection Assistant
Glenview’s Ebony Library currently features several Louis Prang & Co. Christmas cards, including Dora Wheeler’s and Rosina Emmet’s prize winning designs. We invite you to take a look at the display on a tour of Glenview.