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Christmas cards

Posted by ESC on January 31, 2000

Continuing a discussion from the archives.Teach, I believe it was, inquired about the origin of the Christmas card. I found an old book while sorting through some things this weekend (see also "Hear no evil" and "Three on a match.") that has information relating to previous posts.

Here's what was written previously: "The tradition of sending Christmas cards originated in the mid-1800's when a few people began to design handmade cards to send to family and friends. A man named John Calcott Horsely is credited as being the first to actually print Christmas cards. The card depicted a family enjoying the holiday, with scenes of people performing acts of charity. The card was inscribed: "Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You." This comes from a very nice site that has origins of other Christmas traditions.

Additional information from "How Did It Begin: A fascinating study of the superstitions, customs, and strange habits that influence our daily lives" by R. Brash (Pocket Book, New York, 1969) indicates that Mr. Horsely was commissioned by Henry Cole: "The Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He was a well-known figure and was responsible for many innovations in British life. These ranged from the inception of a postal system to the construction of the Albert Hall, from the arrangement of the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the inauguration of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Most of all, Cole wanted to improve public taste. He had an art shop in Old Bond Street which sold all kinds of objects meant to beautify life.

He tried to give aesthetic treatment to almost everything. Nothing was too small or too trifling to deserve his attention. He believed that, apart from being useful, everyday things should also be beautiful. That is how his fertile mind conceived the idea of the first Christmas card which he felt would add further lustre to this sacred day. Three independent factors may have prompted Cole in this endeavour.

There was the example of the Valentine card which had been in existence for almost a century.

Already, too, an 18th century Frenchman had adopted a simple method of conveying his Christmas wishes - verses printed on cards.

Finally, Cole must have been aware of a custom that had been introduced in English schools. Near the end of the winter term - around Christmas time - the boys were asked to produce 'Christmas Pieces." Their purpose was twofold: to send seasonal greetings to the parents but at the same time to indicate to the teachers the pupils' progress in the art of writing.

The 'pieces' were large sheets on which the pupils wrote copperplate Christmas wishes and they were decorated with coloured borders and headings.

Cole's conception of the first Christmas card was a drawing which would lend colour to greetings and wishes which had become too stereotyped. He commissioned a well-known artist, J.C. Horsley, R.A., to design the picture for the card, specimens of which are still preserved.

This adopted the common medieval artistic form of a triptych which actually consists of a set of three illustrations. The central piece depicts a jolly party of adults and children with plenty of food and drink - a fact that aroused severe criticism by the Temperance Movement in Cole's own time. Underneath the picture was expressed the seasonal greeting, wishing 'a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you.' Each of the two side panels is a representation of good works - the clothing of the naked and the feeding of the hungry.

Cole, as well versed in the art of publicity as in that of beauty, did his utmost to popularize the new card, not for personal gain but for the improvement of the public taste and the embellishment of the Christmas celebrations. However, his idea did not catch on until 20 year later. In the 1860s big business adopted the card and stationery firms produced thousands of Christmas cards. Cole's initial failure changed into a tremendous success.

In three decades British printers supplied 163,000 varieties of Christmas cards. These are now collected in 700 volumes weighing almost seven tons.

In acknowledgement of his many services to the nation Cole was knighted and as Sir Henry, dying only in 1882, he must still enjoyed the eventual success of his idea."