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Dear (Whoever You Are), Here’s the First Christmas Card

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The very first mass-produced Christmas card, 1843. Let’s hope the wee child is sipping cider from that wine glass. Rare Book and and Special Collections Division.

This bit of Christmas cheer was written for the Library of Congress Magazine by intern Jacqueline Cerda. It has been adapted and expanded for this blog.

Dear (You),

Hustling after Christmas presents, sending season’s greetings to all the lovely people on your list – well, honestly, it can wear a body down.

So let’s take a moment to send a little holiday cheer out in memory of ye merry olde Henry Cole, the British civil servant and patron of the arts who, in 1843, created the commercial Christmas card. It was, by coincidence, the same year that Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” The two creations, and the iconography they inspired, went a long way to establishing the Victorian concept of Christmas, which, in turn, we now regard as the “traditional” Christmas.

Cole, born in 1808, was the son of a military man. After his formal education, he took clerk and government jobs while befriending artistic, high-minded sorts, including the philosopher John Stuart Mill. By the time Cole was in his 30s, he was spending a large part of each December dashing off one Christmas letter after another. This got a be a considerable drag on his energies, if not his holiday cheer. A man of action, he commissioned friend and illustrator John Calcott Horsley to design a card that would express his cheerful sentiments to all and sundry.

Horsley came up with an image of three generations of a family celebrating with food and drink, along with panels illustrating Christian charity. The message: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The card also included blank lines where Cole could fill in the name of the recipient and his as the sender. (One might notice that the mom appears to be giving her child a rather large glass of wine, but let’s not tut-tut about that now.)

Illustrator John Calcott Horsley signed this card, shortening the date to “Xmasse.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Horsley used chromolithography, a lengthy process that involved multiple layers of color and shading. Once the design was finished, thousands of copies could be made. All Cole had to do was address, sign and mail each one. Joy! The British postal system — dubbed the Penny Post, which he had helped found — was expanding and affordable, so expense was not an issue.

The charming illustration and affordable postage made Cole and Horsley’s creation an enticing alternative to writing holiday letters individually. Cole’s acquaintances realized how efficient the card was and followed suit.

And thus, boys and girls, the Christmas card was born.

Cole, a busy and inventive sort, was no one-hit wonder. He wrote children’s books (he had eight kids), did much to develop British railroads, helped promote better engineering and architectural design in a number of disciplines, became a trusted friend of Queen Victoria, and served as the founding director of what became the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is still a world-class institution in London.

So there you have it, a happy little holiday tale, just in time for Christmas.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,


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Comments (13)

  1. I never thought about this before but I am sure glad he came up with the idea! Saves a lot of time, while conveying good wishes to many friends.

  2. A lovely greeting. A Merry Christmas to you. ..

  3. I enjoyed the historical information and the card is beautiful. So nice to learn about the beginning of Christmas cards.
    Merry Christmas to you all at the library. Peace and Joy!

  4. Another great gem. Thanks.

  5. Merry Christmas to you all at LOC!

  6. In addition to inventing the Christmas card, Henry Cole was also the model for the government inspector who appears in the school scene of Dickens’ industrial novel _Hard Times_. The unnamed inspector berates the student Sissy Jupe for admitting a preference for flowered carpets and wallpaper with images of horses. One of the first exhibits in the institution that would later be called the Victoria and Albert museum was organized by Henry Cole and titled “Gallery of False Principles.” It showed examples of good and bad design, in an attempt to elevate the taste of the public. Among the examples of “false principles” were flowered carpets and wallpaper with images of horses. I’ve recently written about this in my blog, “The Scholarly Dilettante.”

  7. Merry Christmas friends, from Argentina

  8. Henry Cole is buried in Brompton Cemetery in West London. His modest grave is sadly neglected for a man who led such an interesting and productive life.

  9. Hi There – Over here at EPA we liked this blog post so much that we published in on our own intranet. A true gem with the historical facts on how the Christmas card came to be. Thank you LOC for all you do including sharing interesting blogs like this one!

    • Thank you, EPA, and happy holidays!

      – your frands at the LOC

  10. It’s very interesting to read and learn about the origin and history of the Christmas card that was published on the EPA intranet. I appreciate Mr. Cole’s special talents to create a card that was sent and brought a smile on the face of all who received them and the traditional continues.

  11. This is a beautiful piece that also shows a stark social commentary. We immediately see the plump and rosy family basking in warmth and merrily slurping down food and drink. Take a much closer look at the gray withered figures in the left and right borders.

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