Treasures of London – The first (commercial) Christmas card…

Christmas cards have been a staple of Christmases (although a declining one these days) since at least as far back as 1843.

It was then that Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, inventor and the first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, came up with the idea of sending out a card bearing Christmas greetings to a large number of people as a means of coping with the substantial volume of correspondence he was receiving (and would have to send to greet family and friends at Christmas).

Sir Henry commissioned his friend, painter John Callcott Horsley, to design the card and an initial run of 1,000 cards were printed by Jobbins of Warwick Court in Holborn (a further thousands cards were printed in a second run).

Having sent the cards he required, Sir Henry sold the rest for a shilling each under his literary pseudonym of Felix Summerly from the premises of his publisher Joseph Cundall in Old Bond Street (the introduction of the uniform Penny Post in 1840 having made sending them affordable – Cole had been an important figure in its establishment as assistant to the idea’s main instigator Rowland Hill).

The card, which were hand-coloured by professional colourer Mason, depicts a family gathered for Christmas and imbibing wine with side panels depicting two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked”. On it were printed the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.

The card was apparently controversial for its depiction of drinking wine (temperance advocates argued it promoted drunkenness) and particularly for its images of children drinking wine.

The idea didn’t also catch on immediately – the cost of a shilling was rather steep. But new designs soon began to appear in the following years and by the mid-1850s, the idea had finally taken hold.

WHERE: The Postal Museum, 15-20 Phoenix Place (nearest Tube stations are Farringdon, Russell Square, King’s Cross St Pancras and Chancery Lane); WHEN: 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Sunday (booking in advance suggested); COST: Adult £17/Young person (16-24) £12/Child (3-15) £10 (discounts apply for booking online/other ticket types available; WEBSITE: www.postalmuseum.org

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