Sending Christmas cards is such a way of life now that it’s hard to imagine a Christmas without sending or receiving one. Even digital cards sent over the internet are ‘everyday’. So where did this tradition start – and when? Well, unlike the tradition of believing in Father Christmas, sending cards originated in the United Kingdom and not so very long ago!
The man behind it all was Sir Henry Cole. Sir Henry was a man of great insight; not only did he design and create the world’s first Christmas card, he also set up the first ‘Public Record Office’ in the United Kingdom….now fondly known as the Post Office. In 1843 and trying to think of how to make this new Public Record Office more accessible to the general public, Sir Henry Cole came up with the idea of a card for people to send to each other to celebrate Christmas. He and his artist friend John Horsley created the card and they were sold for 1 shilling each. The actual card itself was made up of three panels. The central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient: on either side were scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. It was a somewhat controversial card as a young child is depicted being fed wine. It was feared the image on the card might also encourage drunkenness!
Only 1000 of the cards were printed for that Christmas and were placed on sale in London. Not that many were sold due to the cards expense; 1 shilling was an awful lot of money in those days. Today they are collectors items and only 18 are know to still exist; in 2013, one of the cards sold in Sotheby’s New York for £4,437. Despite not being an instant success, the idea for Christmas cards was an ingenious one as the Penny Post – an idea also introduced by Sir Henry Cole – had been introduced in 1840. The Penny Post enabled poorer people to send mail with a penny stamp; prior to this, sending post had been a luxury reserved strictly for the wealthy. Now everyone could use the Public Postal Service and the novelty idea of sending a ‘Christmas Card’ started to appeal, with more designs every year as their popularity spread.
When the price of sending a card dropped to a halfpenny in the 1870s and as printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers.
The now familiar themes of family, holly and mistletoe originated from these early designs, especially Victorian cards which romanticised the festive period with snowscenes, robins and images of Father Christmas. The growing Christmas card industry opened the doors to artists and writers as well as providing more trade for printers. A contest was held in 1880 to offer five hundred guineas for the best designs. It was not only artists who were showcased; poets and writers now had another outlet for their work; Christmas card designers would pay large sums of money for the most poetic script for their cards.
This tradition soon spread across Europe and to the United States, becoming a booming industry when in the States in 1875, a printer named Louis Prang started to mass-produce cards so the general public could afford to both buy and send them. It certainly proved popular; what started as a controversial idea with only a handful of cards bought by the very wealthy members of the public, turned into an industry which saw 679 million cards being sent in the UK in 2010! The themes carry on to this day…love, charity, family. But maybe not feeding a child wine.