Louis Prang put Christmas cards into millions of American mailboxes and fine art into millions of American homes.
He arrived in Boston at the age of 26, a German revolutionary with a dream of democracy and equality. Over the course of his long career he evolved into an astute businessman and the leading color printer of his age.
From his factory in Boston he dominated the Christmas card industry in the decades following the Civil War. He also brought beautiful art to the masses, lucrative work to women artists and art education to children. Kids today still use the paints and crayons he developed more than a century ago.
Just before Louis Prang died in 1909, a contemporary paid a slightly overwrought tribute to him.
The Santa Claus of American art showered his greeting card favors alike upon the just and the unjust, the rich and the poor, the humble and the proud. Where have they not gone, those loose leaves from the world’s book of beauty! Everywhere! Into the homes of the poor, into the miner’s cabin, the invalid’s chamber, the nursery, the schoolroom, the drawing room. Millions of lives have been brightened by the fair and pleasant things that have been sown broadcast over the country by Mr. Prang.
Louis Prang was born March 12, 1824, in Prussian Silesia, the son of Jonas Louis Prang, a Huguenot textile manufacturer, and Rosina Silverman, a German Calvinist. He apprenticed to his father and learned engraving, printing and calico dyeing. In the 1840s he traveled around Europe working as a printer and in textiles.
By 1848 he had gotten involved in the Revolutions of 1848 in the German States — making him a Forty-Eighter. The revolutionaries aimed to unify the German states. They also wanted to create a more democratic government and guarantee human rights.
The revolution failed and the Prussian government banned Prang. He fled to Switzerland.
In Paris, he met and fell in love with Rosa Gerber, a beautiful Swiss woman bound for Ohio. He followed her to the United States and married her there. They had one daughter.
Prang was a true German romantic who loved nature, art, flowers, strong emotion and his wife. He gave his first color print, Four Roses, to Rosa. He would later sign some of his Christmas cards with a rose.
Fighting the Know-Nothings
In 1851, he went to work for the engraver Frank Leslie in Boston. Five years later, Rosa persuaded him to go out on his own. He went into business with a partner to create lithographs of buildings and towns in Massachusetts.
Prang and his partner soon parted, He then laid the foundation for his success with lithographed labels for cooking extracts and printed trade cards.
As a German in Boston during the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, Louis Prang spoke out against the ‘two-year amendment.’ The Massachusetts Legislature in 1860 passed the amendment, which deprived naturalized citizens of the right to hold office or to vote until two years after they became citizens.
Prang and other German leaders held a rally in Turner Hall, urging listeners only to support a political party that “does not measure civil rights by place of birth, or human rights by color of skin.”
Civil War and After
Twenty-four hours after Louis Prang heard about the attack on Fort Sumter, he engraved, printed and distributed maps of Charleston Harbor to Boston newsstands. Through the Civil War he produced war maps, selling them with red and blue pencils so people could mark the location of opposing armies.
After the war he went to Europe with his wife and daughter to study chromolithography, a method for making multicolor prints. At the time, American printing was pretty much a black-and-white affair.
When Prang returned to Boston he began to make color reproductions of famous works of art. No one else in America had the chops to do it. Prang’s chromolithography required as many as 40 stones. In contrast, Currier & Ives used one stone, and underpaid factory girls slapped on color with brushes.
Prang’s first two color reproductions, of landscapes, fell flat. But then he printed two paintings, Chickens and Ducklings by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. They were a hit, and soon Prang was building a factory on Elliott Street in Roxbury. By 1868 he had 40 presses and state-of-the-art litho-stone equipment.
Prang’s biographer, Larry Freeman, explained the appeal of color in the previously black-and-white world of print. “People in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries were starved for color print replicas of what their eyes revealed directly in nature,” wrote Freeman.
Prang also did something else no one else in America could do. He embossed the print to resemble brush strokes and printed it on linen cloth. Then he put it in a gilt frame, so it could add panache to middle-class parlors.
The Christmas Card
Christmas cards were then popular in England, where Christmas had been celebrated with far more enthusiasm than in Puritanical New England. Sir Henry Cole is credited with inventing the first ever Christmas card in 1843.
Cole, the story goes, didn’t have time for the English tradition of writing notes to friends and family over the holidays. So he asked his friend, the artist John Calcott Horsley, to design a card. He had about a thousand of the cards printed and hand-colored. Cole didn’t use them all, and sold the extras for a shilling apiece. It caused a sensation in Victorian society because it showed a child drinking wine.
Prang probably picked up the idea to make Christmas cards while traveling in Europe.
The American Christmas Card
In 1875, Louis Prang printed his first Christmas cards and exported them to London. They were a success. The next year, he sold them throughout the Northeast. It took but two more years for him to corner the greeting card market in the United States. By 1881, he printed more than 5 million Christmas cards a year. His Prang Lithographic Factory in Roxbury became a tourist attraction, and he often conducted tours himself.
The author Edward Everett Hale considered Prang’s printing shop the most interesting place in Boston.
“Whenever I have a very grand friend visiting me, I always take him there to see how Christmas cards are made,” Hale wrote.
Prang signed the cards ‘L. Prang and Co.’ at the bottom, or hid his mark on a shoe or a leaf. Or he just printed a rose. Young ladies recorded in their diaries how many “Prangs” they received over the holidays.
Collectors today still seek out Prang’s beautiful Christmas cards. considering them graphic masterpieces. Prang printed them on high-quality paper and lavishly decorated them with as many as 30 colors applied to a single print. Some were embossed, varnished and embellished with fringe, tassels and sprinkles.
Prang looked to women for help in finding new designs for his prints and keeping in touch with popular taste.
Women didn’t have many ways to make money outside of the home then. Decent occupations for women were limited to low-paying domestic service, teaching, millwork or sewing.
In 1870, Prang advertised his first art contest in the women’s rights journal Revolution. He asked the Ladies’ Art Association to announce the contest to its members, select and judge the artwork and award the prizes. Then he offered to buy the winning artwork at the artist’s price.
He also bought paintings from women artists such as Rosina Emmet and Fidelia Bridges. By 1881, L. Prang & Company employed more than 100 women artists and designers, including Maude Humphrey Bogart, mother of the actor.
Ten years after Louis Prang’s first art contest for women, he held another for Christmas card designs. The winners would have their designs published and share $3,000. Nearly 800 people entered the first contest in 1880, mostly women.
This was no ordinary contest. Prang exhibited the entries in the prestigious Doll & Richards art gallery in Boston and the American Art Gallery in New York. He then selected as judges architect Richard Morris Hunt, artist Samuel Colman and Edward C. Moore, Tiffany’s head silver designer.
Prang would hold three more contests for Christmas card designs, each one more elaborate than the next. The final exhibit traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Institute of Art in Chicago.
European printers caught on to Prang’s approach. By 1890, they could lower their printing costs and drive Prang out of the American Christmas card business with cheap imitations. But Prang refused to lower his quality.
In the late 18th century, cultured young ladies were expected to be able to draw and paint in order to enter the marriage market. Some reform-minded school officials in Boston thought poor children should also have the chance to draw and paint. So Prang in 1875 took up the cause of art education.
He started to produce classroom art materials as a public service. In 1878 he hired Mary Dana Hicks, a widowed New York art educator, to help with art education products. Rosa died in 1898, and he married Hicks two years later.
Prang cornered the school art supply and instruction business. The company published art textbooks and drawing books, taught art teachers and ultimately developed the “Prang Method of Instruction.” The Boston school system used Prang’s methods for many years.
In 1897, Prang closed his lithographic factory in Roxbury and moved to Springfield, Mass., which had a large German population. The Louis Prang Company merged with the Taber Art Co. of New Bedford. He continued to produce high-quality work and made child-safe art materials.
In 1909, the American Crayon Company bought the rights to his art material, which eventually became Dixon Ticonderoga. (You can buy Prang crayons and paints here.)
Louis Prang died on Sept. 14, 1909.
With thanks to Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York by April F. Masten and Louis Prang; color lithographer; giant of a man by Larry Freeman. Christmas card images courtesy the Boston Public Library unless indicated otherwise. This story was updated in 2021.