Jane Austen would not have recognized this Christmas card, for it was commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843, 26 years after her death and the same year that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. (The British Postal Museum and Archive). Artist John Calcott Horsely designed the card, which shows the poor being fed and clothed on either side of a classic triptych arrangement. The center of the card depicts a group of people celebrating Christmas and holding up a toast in celebration, including children, which set up a hue and cry with the Temperance Society. The card is about the size of a regular postcard. Prior to 1843 the upper classes would send each other signed calling cards at Christmas, but Coles’s decorative paper Christmas greeting became rapidly popular, and by 1860 Christmas cards had become widespread.
At the time he commissioned the card, Henry Cole worked in the Public Records Office of London. A busy man, he had been a Captain in the Dragoon Guards, was involved in the introduction of the penny post, helped organise the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was a founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1843, his schedule was such that he had no time to write to every member of his family and all his friends at Christmas, and so he commissioned JC Horsley to design a card he could send out. Cole had over 1,000 of the cards printed by Joseph Cundell (see the lithographic proof below.) After Cole sent his cards to friends and family, he sold the rest via the post.
At 6d (sixpence) each, these hand-painted cards were considered a luxury item. Since the average weekly wage at the time was around a shilling, such a frivolous purchase was unavailable to the working classes. The cards were sold from a shop on 12 Old Bond Street, and few of the original cards remain today – about a dozen to twenty in all – depending on the source. One example sold in December, 2005 for £8,500.
Centuries earlier the first Christmas card had most likely been made in Germany, but the Cole Horsley card marks the true commercial Christmas card. After this time (1860’s), Christmas cards were produced by the same publishers that created Valentine’s cards. Coupled with the introduction of a cheap and regular post, the habit of sending these cards by all classes of society took off. An original version of the card can be viewed at the V&A museum.
More about the first Christmas Card