Thursday, April 23, 2009
Louis Prang, "Father of the American Christmas Card"
Louis Prang, a German immigrant to Boston in the early 1850s, is known as the “Father of the American Christmas Card,” and most notably brought art into the American home as well as the public classroom by way of chromolithographs and school art supplies. He was born in Germany in 1824 and was one of several children. Due to his persistent ill health at a young age, which prevented him from attending school and obtaining a formal education, he accompanied and was apprenticed to his father, Jonas Louis Prang, a French Huguenot, designing, engraving, printing, and dying various mediums from the age of 13 to 18 years old. Perhaps due to his political views, Prang was forced to leave his country and travel throughout Europe. On Nov. 1, 1851, he married Rosa Gerber, a Swiss woman he had met during his travels, in Boston. “Bouquet of Roses,” one of the first chromolithographic prints he created, was fashioned in her honor.
It was the American public’s fascination with Civil War territory disputes, battles and troop movements coupled with the lack of newspapers’ ability to print photographic images which provided Prang with a unique opportunity to put his skills to use. He manufactured some of the first mass produced maps with red and blue lines, which illustrated troop movements and positions of opposing forces on the battlefields. It allowed those on the home-front to track troop advances and retreats through victories and defeats throughout the war. By 1864, the soaring popularity of these maps provided Prang with enough money to travel with his wife and daughter to Europe. Around 1864, he took the concept of well wishing cards from the 1840s and published a series of Christmas themed prints, intended to decorate private dwellings. At the suggestion of a London colleague’s wife in the 1870s, Prang omitted the names and addresses on his popular trade cards and instead inserted seasonal greetings, thus creating the modern Christmas card. The end of the Civil War and Prang’s return to the United States set in motion his efforts to produce commercial art prints replicating the high quality of European art at a semi-affordable price, yet he was unsure of American acceptance and reaction to finer and more expensive art at about $6.00 a print. He produced his first chromolithograph, which he dubbed as “chromos,” in 1866. They were cheaper yet high quality reproductions of original oil paintings he had admired elsewhere. Culture purists and opponents labeled Prang’s reproductions as “frauds” and “shams.” Despite his critics, he won a host of awards on the international scale for his work. In 1898, tragedy struck as his wife, Rosa Gerber Prang, passed away. On April 15, 1900, Louis Prang married long time business associate, Mary Dana Hicks, and the two remained happily married until Louis Prang’s death in 1909 at a California sanitarium. He had been an outspoken advocate for bringing art, previously enjoyed only by the privileged few, into the classroom through the introduction of products like watercolor paints, which immortalized his name for generations of schoolchildren. The Prang Educational Company oversaw these efforts, which were taken on by American Crayon Company upon the merger of the two.