The sending of Christmas greeting cards began in the Victorian era. Although wood engravers
produced prints with religious themes in the European Middle
Ages, the first commercial Christmas and New Year's card is
believed to have been designed and printed in London, England in
Callcott Horsley (born 1817--died 1903), a British
narrative painter and a Royal Academician, designed the very
first Christmas and New Year's card at the request of his friend
Sir Henry Cole (the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum). Cole suggested the idea of a
specially designed form of greeting to send to friends at Christmas. In 1843 an edition of 1,000 of these Christmas cards
were printed and placed on sale in London. They were printed in lithography by Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, London,
and hand-colored by a professional "colourer" named Mason. The
cards were published under Sir Henry Cole's nom de guerre,
"Felix Summerly"—by his friend Joseph Cundall, of New Bond
This card, one of 18 cards produced 167 years ago and still known to exist, was auctioned by Sotheby's in 2010 and sold for $7000. This particular card was was sent to a "Miss Rusby" from an "H. Vernon", produced by Sir Henry Cole and published by Summerley’s Home Treasury Office, 12, Old Bond Street, London. [Image from Daily Mail]
That was the beginning. But in spite of its ingenuity, the first Christmas card was not an instant success, even bringing about disapproval from the temperance league who feared the card would encourage drunkenness. The
following year there were other picture-makers, and the
Christmas card was launched on the tide of popular favor; but it
was not until the idea had grown out of favor among artistic and
literary circles that it was taken up by a business man, Goodall.
Charles Goodall & Son, a British publisher of visiting cards was
one of the first to mass produce Christmas cards and visiting
cards. In 1866 Mr. Josiah Goodall commissioned Messrs. Marcus
Ward & Co., of Belfast, to lithograph, for his firm, a set of
four designs by C. H. Bennett, and in the following year another
set by the same artist. These, together with Luke Limner's
border design of holly, mistletoe, and robins, may be taken as
the forerunners of today’s Christmas card.
The Christmas card publishing
industry created unheard of opportunities for artists, writers,
printers, and engravers. In 1880 the Christmas card had a new
birth, for it was then that a great London firm offered five
hundred guineas in prizes for the most artistic designs. Many of
the great artists of the day responded with their best ideas.
Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Thomas Crane were among the
many 19th century artists famous for their greeting card
designs. In addition, literary writers saw the opportunity; they
gave to the beauty of the painting the music of their words.
Many well-known writers were not above this profitable work of
creating greeting cards. Thousands of pounds were spent in
finding the right poems and suitable Christmas sentiments, until
at last these Yuletide offerings reached the climax of their
literary and artistic excellence.
An original copy of Horsley’s
Christmas card is considered very rare. The Christmas card
publishers, Messrs De La Rue, reproduced the original design by
chromolithography in 1881; and then copies of this reprint were
issued in 1955 and can still be found today.