The first Christmas card

With Royal Mail’s last posting day fast approaching many people are hurriedly finishing off their Christmas cards. For despite the growing popularity of Christmas greetings sent online, cards are still popular, with Royal Mail delivering 750 million Christmas cards every year. Perhaps it is the personal touch of a handwritten card that keeps this tradition alive.

Like many Christmas traditions, Christmas cards date from the Victorian era. Queen Victoria sent the first official Christmas card, and Sir Henry Cole, who amongst other things was an assistant to Sir Rowland Hill in the introduction of the penny post and the first Director of the V&A, commissioned the first commercial Christmas card in 1843. 1000 of the cards designed by painter John Callcott Horsley were printed lithographically and then hand-coloured by the professional colourer Mason. Cole used as many of these cards as he required and sold the rest for one shilling each under the pseudonym Felix Summerly. An advert in the Athenaeum paper for the cards read “Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

Horsley’s design depicts two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” – and a family party scene, in which three generations are drinking wine to celebrate the season. The depiction of children drinking wine proved to be controversial, for this was an era when the temperance movement was gaining in popularity in the UK, but this did not stop people buying the cards and more were printed to satisfy demand.

Very few of the first Christmas cards remain in existence. Four years ago one was sold at auction for £8,500, while another is part of our collection of postal ephemera. In 1993 the V&A re-printed the design, to celebrate 150 years of the Christmas card; we also have an example of this in our collection.

For more on Christmas traditions and the post see our online exhibition The Post of Christmas Past.

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