This is the world’s first commercial Christmas card. It was commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843. 1,000 of these Christmas cards were printed, and Cole used as many as he required before selling the rest for 6d (sixpence) each. This price that made them a luxury item, unavailable to the working class.
|The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.|
This advert for the card appeared in the Athenaeum paper:
“Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”
Henry Cole (1808 – 1882) was a prominent civil-servant, educator, inventor and the first director of the V&A. 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. Christmas was a busy time in the Cole household and with unanswered mail piling up, a timesaving solution was needed. Henry turned to his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley to illustrate his idea.
Cole’s diary entry for 17 December 1843 records, “In the Evg Horsley came & brought his design for Christmas Cards”. Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-colored panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity. Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalized with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalized 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”.
|Greetings card, John Callcott Horsley, 1843, England. Museum no. MSL.3293-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.|
Cole’s Christmas card was also published and offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop. But the 1840s was a period of change, with Prince Albert introducing various German Christmas traditions to the British public, including the decorated Christmas tree.
Cole may have been ahead of his time but the commercialization of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. More affordable Christmas gift-books and keepsakes were aimed at 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 firmly established.