Cathal Coyle charts the extraordinary growth of the Christmas card industry
While the first recorded Christmas cards were sent by Michael Maier to James I of England and his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1611 (these were discovered in 1979 by Adam McLean in the Scottish Record Office), the first commercial or manufactured Christmas card was devised by Sir Henry Cole in 1843.
Cole was the Founding Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and also a prominent educator and inventor. His idea of a card was a time-saving device intended to spare the busy Director from writing individual letters at Christmas to his family, friends and business colleagues.
He asked his friend, the painter John Callcott Horsley, to design a card with an image and brief greeting that he could mail instead.
Horsley’s design (main picture) depicted three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity.
At the top of each was the salutation, “TO:_____” allowing Cole to personalise his responses, which included the generic greeting at the bottom of the centre panel “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalised his card to Cole by drawing a tiny self-portrait in the bottom right corner instead of his signature, along with the date “Xmasse, 1843”.
The card was lithographed on stiff cardboard in dark sepia and then coloured by hand. An edition of 1,000 cards was printed and sold at Felix Summerly’s Treasure House in London for a shilling each.