The Origins of the First Christmas Card, A Victorian Tradition

Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit obsessed with Christmas as I already wrote about who invented it, what was the first Christmas movie, and the story of the Royal who invented the Gingerbread Man (a Christmas Story). Well, I’m not finished, because now we are talking about:

The History of The First Christmas Card

The first Christmas card was sent in the early 17th century by German physician and alchemist Michael Maier, who wrote to King James I of England and his son, Prince Henry Frederick, in 1611 and said the following:

A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the birthday of the Lord. In most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612.

On it featured a drawing of a rose, a symbol associated with Rosicrucian imagery, signifying wisdom and cultural heritage passed down through the ages.

It had a drawing of a rose on it, a symbol linked with Rosicrucian iconography that represented knowledge and cultural legacy passed down through the years.

Maier’s card was a personal gesture, not meant for widespread distribution. It would take more than two centuries for the first commercialized Christmas card to see the light of day.

Henry Cole and the Birth of the Christmas Card

Although some sources credit Thomas Shorrock of Leith, Scotland, with creating the first Christmas cards, the credit is more commonly attributed to Sir Henry Cole, a British servant and prominent figure in Victorian England who would become the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Cole set out on a quest to improve the postal system in the 1840s, inventing the Uniform Penny Post, which encouraged the sharing of seasonal pleasantries via embellished letterheads and visiting cards. However, as the holiday season neared, Cole found himself flooded with unanswered letters and sought a time-saving option.

Greetings card, John Callcott Horsley, 1843, England. Museum no. MSL.3293-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

He enlisted the help of a friend, artist John Callcott Horsley (brother-in-law of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel), to realize his vision. Horsley presented Cole with his design for the first Christmas card on December 17, 1843. Three generations of the Cole family were shown lifting a glass in the card’s main panel, which was framed by an elaborate trellis and black-and-white illustrations representing acts of giving.

Commercial Reception and Victorian Influence

The Christmas card was also produced and sold for a shilling apiece, which was pricey at the time, and the business was deemed a failure. It was also surrounded by some controversy. Because of the picture of children holding what seemed to be wine glasses, some believed it encouraged underage drinking.

The commercialization of Christmas cards had begun, aided by substantial developments in the publishing business in the 1840s. The Christmas Season was growing, thanks to Prince Albert who brought numerous German Christmas customs to the British people while the expanding middle classes sought more cheap Christmas gift-books and souvenirs. To answer to this demand, Authors such as Charles Dickens wrote Christmas-themed novels, notably Dickens’ masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol,” which was an immediate hit when it was released in 1843.

Christmas cards also first debuted in the United States of America in the late 1840s, but they were too costly for most individuals. Louis Prang, a German printer who had previously worked on early cards in the UK, started producing cards in large quantities in 1875 so that more people could afford to buy them.

Santa on a bike, a Christmas card, probably Ernest Nister, 1890-1900

Evolution of Christmas Card Design

The second Christmas card was conceived in 1848 by William Maw Egley and shared many similarities with Horsley’s design. Both had images of middle-class holiday fun mixed with joyous charitable deeds. These early cards, which contained delicate “paper lace” and layered patterns and were inspired by popular Valentine’s Day cards, frequently revealed flowers and religious symbolism, such as angels watching over children.

This was just the beginning, though, as improvements in printing methods soon made it possible to use brilliant colors, metallic inks, fabric appliqué, and die-cutting methods, producing cards with intricate shapes. It brought forth a golden period for Christmas cards, especially between 1860 and 1890.

More cheap cards were imported from Germany by publishers like Hildesheimer & Co. This led to the introduction of the “penny basket” in 1879, which included a dozen cards and was sold by various stores. the introduction of the half-penny stamp for sending these famous cards in the 1870s also helped to make them more accessible to everyone.

Iconography and Collecting Culture

Victorians avidly embraced Christmas cards, exchanging, displaying, and amassing a vast number of them. The middle class also grew interested in collecting them.

In the process, they produced the now-famous imagery associated with the festive season. Christmas cards quickly gained notoriety for their wintery images of robins, holly, evergreens, small-town churches, and snowy sceneries. Indoor scenes depicting traditions like tree decoration, Christmas feasts, Santa Claus, kid-friendly activities, and Christmas crackers also gained popularity.

Those are iconography we would associate to a joyous Christmas, but the Victorian Christmas Cards also featured some unconventional and dark imagery for today standards.

Between 1948 and 1957, Norman Rockwell created 32 Christmas card designs

Some cards depicted violent frogs, dead birds, eerie snowmen, Krampus or even a child cooked in a teapot. Unusual depictions of animals, fruits, and vegetables, such as walking potatoes and dancing Christmas dinner ingredients, were also prevalent.

The quest for novelty and media attention prompted designers to produce uncommon cards. Victorian customs and morals were represented in the somber images, such as dead robins. As part of the celebrations on St. Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas), it was customary to kill a tiny bird, usually a robin or a wren. Sending photographs of deceased birds on Christmas cards was really supposed to bring the person receiving them good fortune.

That’s a dark twist that I don’t associate with Christmas. But if it’s for luck!

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