The First Christmas Card

Sending Christmas cards is such a key part of the Christmas tradition, often as a way of keeping in touch with the friends and family we are not able to see as often as we would like to. Although, in past years this has decreased a little, with E-cards, social media and the increase in postage costs. There is still something very special about receiving and sending a card, to someone you care about.

The very first recorded Christmas card was sent by Michael Maier to James 1st and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611. It was discovered in 1979 by Adam McLean in the Scottish Record Office.

However, commercially, it was not going to be until 1843, that Christmas cards, as we know them, were first designed and produced in England by John Callcott Horsley. An edition of 1,000 hand-coloured copies was placed on sale in London. Henry Cole, sent the first Christmas card. He was the founding director of the V&A (who still have a special interest in collecting and displaying greetings cards) and a prominent civil-servant, educator and inventor. In the 1840s, he was instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards. Which seems ironic since the modern postal system is a factor in the reduction of cards been sent today.

Cole was a close friend to the artist John Callcott Horsley and asked him to illustrate his idea. Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving, the message was of celebration and charity. Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalised his card to Cole by drawing a tiny self-portrait in the bottom right corner instead of his signature along with the date Xmasse 1843.

Cole’s Christmas card was also published and offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was quite expensive at the time. In the 1840s, it was a period of change with Prince Albert introducing various German Christmas traditions to the British public like decorating a Christmas tree. Cole may have been ahead of his time but the commercialisation of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. The growing middle- classes and authors responded to the trend.  Charles Dickens wrote Christmas- themed stories for Household Words and All the Year Round and published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the 1870s the Christmas trend was well and truly established.

The second Christmas card designed was by artist William Maw Egley, which came a few years later in 1848. The design is noticeably similar to the first card as both show scenes of middle-class festive merriment offset with acts of seasonal charity and both were printed on single sheets about the size of a ladies’ visiting card. Early Christmas cards were influenced by the already popular Valentine cards and featured paper lace, which was embossed and pierced paper and layers that opened to reveal flowers and religious symbols like angels watching over sleeping children. New printing processes and techniques in 1860, that combined colour, (chromolithography) metallic inks, fabric appliqué and die-cutting to make elaborately shapes were of great importance for Victorian Christmas cards. The aesthetic cards produced in this period were considered tasteful and refined and were sold in bookshops and stationers and were still expensive, at ninepence the two designs. Publishers such as Hildesheimer & Co. started to import cheaper cards from Germany, before producing the penny basket in 1879, which contained around a dozen cards and was sold through tobacconists, drapers and toy shops. The Half Penny Post, introduced in 1894, further boosted Christmas card sales, with a less expensive postcard format becoming popular. Victorians now exchanged, displayed and collected Christmas cards in vast numbers.

This period saw the debut of many of the meaningful symbols and decorative devices that we now associate with the festive season; with indoor scenes of seasonal rituals and gift giving, winter scenes of robins, holly, evergreens, country churches and snowy landscapes. Scenes of a middle-class household were shown like decorating trees, children’s games, pantomime characters and sitting down to a Christmas dinner with crackers. Renowned illustrators produced designs for Christmas cards, Linnie Watts adapted her poignant paintings of children. Whilst, the artist Harry Payne, turned sentimental portrayals of soldiers into Christmas cards connecting families and friends across the British empire. Such heartfelt communications were ready-made keepsakes and collecting Christmas cards became a middle-class passion.

In the book The History of the Christmas Card in 1954, the collector George Buday, suggested that the Christmas card from its beginning was more closely associated in the minds of the senders with the social aspect, the festivities connected with Christmas than with the religious function of the season. I think this is in part true, but I also think that it highlights the importance of the family to Victorian England. This was the time of social reform and change, which saw improvements in the living and working conditions of the working-class man and his family.

Henry Cole’s Christmas card venture was initially judged to be a commercial flop. However, one of the first cards he produced was auctioned in 2013 and sold for £22,000, so I am sure he would have been very proud to have been proved right in the end. Christmas cards have grown into a multi-million pound retail phenomenon with around a billion cards bought in the UK each year.

The V & A in London, holds the national collection of cards for all occasions with over 30,000 examples of cards. More than half of which celebrate Christmas. They also revive Cole’s entrepreneurial spirit by launching exclusive card ranges in the V&A Shop each year, inspired by favourite designs from this historic collection. These beautiful cards are available in their museum shop and online.

A happy Christmas to you all and a wonderful New Year.

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