In the lead-up to Christmas we are showcasing some of the festive items in our collection across our social networks. Behind the door of our virtual advent calendar today is…
The World’s First Christmas Card (1843)
An example of the first British Christmas card. The Christmas card was designed by John Callcott Horsley RA, from an idea by Sir Henry Cole (founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum).The initial print run was for 1000 cards. The first edition of cards was lithographed and hand coloured by a professional colourer named Mason. Surplus cards from the original print run were sold under Henry Cole’s pseudonym of Felix Summerly for one shilling each. This card is one of these surpluses.
See larger images of all the items in our Virtual Advent Calendar on Flickr.
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
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.
Posted in Archive, Catalogue, Collection
Tagged Athenaeum paper, Christmas, Christmas cards, Christmas tradition, ephemera, Felix Summerly, Henry Cole, John Callcott Horsley, last posting day, Mason, Post Office, Queen Victoria, Rowland Hill, Royal Mail, Sir Henry Cole, Sir Rowland Hill, temperance movement, V&A, Victorian