First Christmas Card


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 1843. John 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 Street.


First Christmas Card

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.


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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.


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