Who Invented the Christmas Card?

atkins bookshelf triviaThe Christmas card was created by two British gentlemen: Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and inventor, and John Callcott Horsley, a painter of historical scenes, in 1843 — the year that Charles Dickens published his best-selling novella, A Christmas Carol, which rekindled traditional celebrations of Christmas in Victorian England. Cole came up with the idea of mailing Christmas cards to friends and family. He commissioned Horsley to design the first Christmas card (known as the Cole-Horsley card), which was sold for a shilling each. The rectangular card features a border made of branches wrapped in grapevine, creating three framed panels; while the left and right panels are rendered in color, the center panel is rendered in color. The center panel features a jovial family around a banquet table enjoying a festive holiday party, with members of all ages merrily drinking red wine. Beneath the table is a banner adorned with the words “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You.” The left panel shows a man offering a destitute man and a child some food; the right panel depicts a woman offering a child a blanket to provide warmth. The card, featuring very young children drinking wine, created a bit of controversy  because it offended Victorian sensibilities (particularly the stick-in-the-mud members of the British Temperance Movement) since it was subtly suggesting boozing it up during the holidays. But let’s face it — when you cram that many relatives together during Christmastime, who could blame family members for reaching for a little drink to cope?

Cole printed one thousand copies of the first Christmas card in black and white; the center panel was then colored by hand. Today, only about a dozen of those original Christmas cards have survived. Needless to say, that first Victorian Christmas card is extremely valuable. In 2011, a very rare copy (signed by Cole) was sold at auction for $28,000 (about $32,000 in today’s dollars). Now that’s worth toasting with a glass of wine!

Across the pond, around 1850, Richard Pease printed the first commercial Christmas cards, designed by Elisa Forbes, as a way to promote his five-and-dime store, Pease’s Great Variety Store in Albany, New York (the building was known as the “Temple of Fancy”). Today that card would surely offend modern sensibilities — the black-and-white drawing depicts a family (wife and husband, three children) sitting down to Christmas dinner in the foreground as an African-American slave prepares the food in the background. At the base of the table is a rectangular banner expressing “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Draped above the images of the family is a banner inscribed with the words “Pease’s Great Variety Store in the Temple of Fancy” along with depictions of many items sold at the store. At the bottom are two fields (“To” and “From”) that the sender would fill out. (Unfortunately, only one copy of the first American Christmas card exists; it is owned by the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections in England. Go figure.) Over two decades later, in 1870, Bostonian Louis Prang started a successful business printing and selling fancy holiday cards. In doing so, Prang earned the title of the true “father of the American Christmas card.”

Read related posts: A Christmas Carol by the Numbers
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life

Words invented by Dickens
Why Read Dickens?

For further reading: Weird Christmas by Joey Green (2005)


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