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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!

5 Responses to “Christmas Traditions: The First Christmas Card”

  1. Elaine - I used to be indecisive

    Thank you – I didn’t know the whole story behind the start of Christmas cards. I’ve noticed that people are sending fewer cards these days – mainly because of social media I suppose, and being able to be in touch with people so much more easily than in the past.

    • CadyLuck Leedy

      Elaine, as I wrote this post I thought a lot about Christmas Cards. Henry Cole got tired of writing so many personal greetings, hence the idea of the Christmas card! And then to think that he probably went around personally delivering them because postage was so high was another issue. But wouldn’t that be great to go to so much trouble to wish someone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year? I would think a lot of that person. When I was first married we sent out hundreds of cards. Now about fifty. People just drop off the list because they move without leaving a forwarding address or just simply never respond. I would write a note in each of my cards to everyone, letting them know “we were still alive” and what the children were up to ect. Now I write that” we are still alive” and what the grandchildren are up to! I cannot imagine getting a Christmas message over Facebook, but then many people my age are not aware of how it works. PS When I married my husband he had a little black book (literally) of names that he sent Christmas Cards to. He was in the military for a long time before we were married and I discovered that when he sent out his Christmas cards many went to women. He still sends everyone a card and a handwritten message on his list and most of those women, now of course married for as long as we have been or longer, still sent him a card too. His list has done much better than mine!

      • Elaine - I used to be indecisive

        How lovely that your husband still writes hand written messages to all these people. I, like you, used to write letters/notes to many people every year, but now I hardly do any, which I feel bad about. Somehow every year I run out of time for anything other than a very hasty ‘we are still alive’ sort of thing!

  2. BuntyMcC

    Thanks for the history of the Christmas card. You’ve done a lot of great research for this series. Hmmm, I think I’m supposed to be doing something about Christmas cards today…

  3. CadyLuck Leedy

    Bunty, I just love telling these stories! Most of it surprises me too! I think if I hadn’t been a nurse a history teacher would have been second.


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