The first Christmas card
Despite the growing popularity of Christmas greetings sent online, paper cards are still popular. Perhaps it is the personal touch of a handwritten card that keeps this tradition alive.
Like many Christmas traditions, Christmas cards date from the Victorian era. Queen Victoria sent the first official Christmas card, and Sir Henry Cole, who amongst other things was an assistant to Sir Rowland Hill in the introduction of the penny post and the first Director of the V&A, commissioned the first commercial Christmas card in 1843.
The initial print run was for 1000 cards. Designed by painter John Callcott Horsley, cards were printed lithographically and then hand-coloured by the professional colourer Mason. Cole used as many of these cards as he required and sold the rest for one shilling each under the pseudonym Felix Summerly.
An advert in the Athenaeum paper for the cards read:
“Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”
Horsley’s design depicts two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” – and a family party scene, in which three generations are drinking wine to celebrate the season. The depiction of children drinking wine proved to be controversial, for this was an era when the temperance movement was gaining in popularity in the UK, but this did not stop people buying the cards and more were printed to satisfy demand.
Very few of the first Christmas cards remain in existence and we’re very lucky to have one in our collection. Come and see it on display in the museum exhibition.