The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.
The history of “Christmas cards”
Christmas cards are greeting cards sent as part of the traditional celebration of Christmas to convey sentiments related to the Christmas and the holiday season. They are usually exchanged during the weeks preceding Christmas Day by many people (including non-Christians). The traditional greeting reads “wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. There are innumerable variations on this greeting, some expressing more religious sentiments containing Biblical verses, a prayer, poem, Christmas song lyrics while others have a more general an all-inclusive “Season’s greetings”.
Before the age of e-mail and cell phones, the printed word was the primary form of personal communication. The art of writing letters was an important social skill in Victorian England, a period from 1837 to 1901 when Queen Victoria ruled. During this era, proper Victorians composed letters of introduction, business, congratulations, love, apology and more. Well written, elegant letters were considered an obligation by ladies and gentlemen of that period.
English schoolboys away from home composed an early form of Christmas greeting in the 19th century. The boys practiced their penmanship composing “Christmas pieces” or “school pieces” for their teachers and families. The holiday messages were conveyed in letters, until England’s Sir Henry Cole, who is credited with the creation of the first commercial Christmas card.
A civil servant with a strong interest in art and design, Henry Cole (1808-1882) began his career in the Public Records Office in London at the age of 15. Here he played a key role in organizing Britain’s national archives. While assistant to Sir Rowland Hill, Cole was instrumental in reforming the Penny Post (British postal service) and in introducing the first adhesive postage stamp known as the “Penny Black”.
In 1843, Cole’s cards, featuring Horsley’s illustration, were printed in lithograph form and then colored by hand. 1,000 cards were initially printed featuring the sentiment, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” After addressing cards to his friends and family, the remaining cards were sold for sixpence each, thus becoming the first commercial Christmas cards.
Christmas Cards appeared in the United States of America in the late 1840s, but were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford them. It 1875, Louis Prang, a printer who had also worked on early cards in the UK, started mass producing cards so more people could afford to buy them. Mr Prang’s first cards featured flowers, plants, and children. In 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today.
In the 1910s and 1920s, home made cards also became popular. They had things such as foil and ribbon on them. These were usually too delicate to send through the post and were given by hand.
Today , many of us enjoy sending and receiving cards during the Christmas Holidays. It’s a beautiful and heartwarming aspect of the Holiday season, to think of family, friends and other meaningful people in our life that offer us their support or services to us throughout the year (such as our neighbors, co-workers, vets, teachers, doctors, mail carriers, etc). This is one of the many Christmas traditions that offers an opportunity to express gratitude, love, and joyful holiday wishes.
Children looking at Christmas cards in New York 1910 (New York Times Photo Archives)