Christmas Traditions: The First Christmas Card

First Christmas Card Designed by JC Horsley
First Christmas Card Designed by JC Horsley

The first Christmas Card was created by Sir Henry Cole, in London. Cole was a prominent innovator in the 1800’s. He  managed the construction of Albert Hall, arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In his spare time he ran an art shop on Bond Street, specializing in decorative objects for the home.

Sir Henry Cole
Sir Henry Cole

In 1837, British postal rates were high. It was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet of paper and the distance traveled. In 1840, Cole was credited in revamping the postal system and creating the first self-adhesive postage stamp: the Penny Black. He also announced a competition to design the new stamps. There were some 2,600 entries, but none were considered suitable; instead a rough design was chosen, featuring an easily recognizable profile of Princess Victoria. Cole believed the picture of Victoria would be hard to forge. The Penny Black stamp allowed letters up to 1/2 ounce to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny regardless of distance. The stamp lasted less than a year, because the red cancellation was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove, which made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February, 1841 the post office switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove.

Penny Black Stamp
Penny Black Stamp

During this time people exchanged handwritten holiday greetings, written one by one. Henry Cole decided to design an attractive card so that it was not necessary to compose a Christmas letter to all his friends individually. In 1843, he commissioned John Callcott Horsley to create the first commercial card designed for sale. The design was a wealthy family enjoying a seasonal feast set with a rustic border hung with ivy grapes and leaves and the words, “A Merry Christmas to You.” It caused some controversy with temperance groups, because it depicted a small child drinking wine.  Horsley had previously designed the Horsley envelope, a pre-paid envelope that was the precursor to the postage stamp. Even the early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a vogue which would soon pass. They operated on a quick turn basis and did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers. Thanks to these two men we have Christmas cards, envelopes and postage stamps!

During the latter years of the Victorian era many people designed their own cards and became increasingly adventurous in their construction. The “trick card” was the most popular Christmas card of the Victorian era. While infinite in variety, it always featured some element of surprise. While seemingly simple at first glance, the turning of a page, the pulling of a string, or the moving of a lever would reveal the unexpected, showing the card to be more complex than first imagined.  The cards tended not to focus upon religious or wintry scenes. Nature was the inspiration and colorful scenes of spring and summer dominated. Early cards therefore featured colorful birds or butterflies flying amongst stalks of wheat and even insects landing upon ripening fruit; a timely reminder that the harsh winter weather would soon pass. 

More to come in my Christmas Food and Tradition Series!

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