Wood engravers had been producing prints with a religious theme for Christmas since the Middle Ages. That was still a long way off from the roaring trade of Christmas cards we have today. At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, it was a popular practice for people to send hand-drawn “Christmas sheets” to family and friends (recall the 18th century tradition of children bringing home their penmanship copies). It was also popular to send special Christmas calling cards.
Henry Cole instigated the first cards. He had been in the Royal Dragoons, created the penny post, helped organize the Great Exhibition in 1851, and was one of the founders of the Victoria & Albert Museum. At the time he created the cards, he was working in the Public Records Office and found he was so busy he didn’t have time to write to all his friends and family sending his Christmas wishes. So, in 1843, Cole commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to do an image of a family party with inserts of people performing charitable acts. Horsley (1817-1903) was a narrative painter and a Royal Academician. “They were printed in lithography by Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, London, and hand-colored by a professional ‘colourer’ named Mason. The cards were published under Sir Henry Cole's nom de guerre, ‘Felix Summerly’—by his friend Joseph Cundall, of New Bond Street” (Haug).
The triptych shows a family toasting, which was not popular with those from the Temperance movement. It was printed on hard cardboard and the card is about the size of a modern postcard. The inscription says, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You!” It sold for a shilling each, and Cole sold nearly 1,000, of which between a dozen and 20 remain in good condition—in 2005, one sold at auction for £8,500. Nevertheless, this was certainly beyond the means of an average working person, and cards remained a luxury item. Charles Goodall & Sons were the first printing press to produce the cards commercially. “In 1866 Mr. Josiah Goodall commissioned Messrs. Marcus Ward & Co., of Belfast, to lithograph, for his firm, a set of four designs by C. H. Bennett, and in the following year another set by the same artist. These, together with Luke Limner's border design of holly, mistletoe, and robins, may be taken as the forerunners of today’s Christmas card” (Haug).
R.H. Pease was the first American distributor of Christmas cards in the early 1850s. His cards showed a family scene, as well as an elf-like Santa figure, a ballroom with dancers, arrays of Christmas food and drink, and a Black servant setting the table.
Popularity & Design
Soon there were pop-up cards, and by the 1860s cards were mentioned in Punch and The Times. The ubiquitous robin appeared on a card in 1862. The centrality of the robin was reinforced by the character of Robin postman in Trolloppe’s Framley Parsonage (1860). The robin also came to symbolize the vulnerable child at Christmastime in need of charity. Religious cards emerged in the 1870s but remained a minority. Some cards even were produced with spring, summer and other unrelated themes (for example, the first Cole card is mostly pink and has no trapping of holly, ivy, or evergreens which we would expect). There have been stranger subjects of Christmas cards, too, ones that include devils, insects, monsters, and rats, and a strange sub-genre of nubile, barely-clad women, or even prepubescent girls.
In 1880, a London firm offered the extravagant prize of 500 guineas to writers and artists to create the most successful Christmas card. Artists like Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Thomas Crane created beautiful work for such an occasion.
By 1873, people had already started publishing advertisements in newspapers wishing their friends their best but regretting they would not be sending Christmas cards that year. In 1880, the Post Office made its first plea for “Post early for Christmas.” The popularity of the Christmas card was made possible by the invention of the chromolithographic printing process and the reform of the postal service. By the 1880s and 1890s, cards took a dip in popularity as they became “mass market.” The Times wrote in 1883, “This wholesome custom has been . . . frequently the happy means of ending strife, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family and neighborhood ties in all conditions of life” (Golby 70).
In the US, cards quickly became popular, due to increased geographic mobility. Following the Civil War, when Congress standardized the mail system, mail travelled more dependably and more cheaply. There’s an amusing quote from 1882 from a post office official. “I thought last year would be the end of the Christmas card mania, but I don’t think so now,” he said, quoted in the Washington Star. “Why four years ago a Christmas card was a rare thing” (118). Americans preferred the cards of Louis Prang, who in 1868 owned perhaps half of the steam presses in America. Prang exploited the market throughout the second half of the century, producing larger and more beautifully-illustrated cards, with a high commitment to a strong aesthetic vision.
In the UK, even more than in the US, the ritual of exchanging cards is extremely widespread. “For twenty years the only communication between two households is the annual exchange of these tokens. This is done with the understanding that such cards keep alive the potential for intimacy if circumstances should ever change to allow it. . . . Thereby the actual expansion of Christmas across the globe becomes itself an instrument in accomplishing the sense of Christmas as the festival of the microcosm” (Miller 30). In Mary Searle-Chatterjee’s essay about cards, there is rather astonishing fact when you think about it: above all on contemporary card design, evergreens and winter scenes dominate (just as they would have during the Yule festivities). “Christmas, then, judging by cards, is a winter festival stressing the survival of life in the form of evergreens” (179).
In France, cards are sent at New Year’s rather than Christmas, known as les voeux, which wish you a Happy New Year.
Jane Austen’s World blog.
“A Theory of Christmas.”