The practice of sending Christmas cards really began in the Victoria era and it was in London, in 1843, that the first commercial Christmas cards are widely said to have been designed and printed.
The idea had come from Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who, overwhelmed with the volume of correspondence he was receiving, conceived it as answer to his problem, allowing him to send Christmas greetings to a wide group of people – all at once.
He asked his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley, to design the card and an edition of 1,000 were printed by Jobbins of Warwick Court in Holborn.
The hand-coloured card, published by Summerley’s Home Treasury Office in Old Bond Street, showed a family gathered for a Christmas celebration with two side images showing people engaged in charitable acts and a message, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. Designed as a single flat card (not foldable like they are today), it came complete with ‘To’ and ‘From’ spaces for the sender to fill in.
The cards which Sir Henry didn’t need for his personal use were placed on sale for a shilling each but it was a fairly steep price and that – and the fact that the image of people drinking at the festive season apparently roused the ire of temperance campaigners, helped to ensure the cards weren’t an immediate success.
Nonetheless, further cards were produced in the following years and within a couple of decades, they were being mass produced.
One of Sir Henry’s original cards was reportedly sold at an auction in 2013 for £22,000.