One day in 1843, the artist John Calcott Horsley visited the designer, writer and civil servant Henry Cole at his Bond Street, London premises. Under the pseudonym ‘Felix Summerley’, Cole had set up a firm for ‘art manufacture’. One outcome of their meeting was the idea for the world’s first Christmas card, yet it was a notion which, in one form or another, had been around for two thousand years or so.
For example, the Romans had once sent gifts to the Emperor to mark the New Year, but over time the formal tablets on which greetings were engraved gradually replaced the gifts. This custom died with the fall of the Roman Empire, but resurfaced in 15th century Germany with a Christian emphasis, its pagan origins forgotten. This time, religious cards featuring the infant Jesus were produced, and usually captioned ‘a blessed New Year’.
Continental New Year Cards
Yet the idea fell out of fashion, and three hundred years were to elapse before it was revived, still in Germany. At first it was simply a continental version of our own first-footing, but it soon spread throughout most of Western Europe. People would go out on New Year’s Day to wish their friends good luck. If the friends were out first-footing too, they left visiting cards, on the back of which they had scribbled their good wishes. From there it was a simple step for the local printer to produce cards with a ready-made greeting. Although the card designs featured flowers and the occasional stage-coach, food was a popular subject, especially cakes and pies – but no turkeys. However, they were not Christmas cards and they were not used in Great Britain.
Cole and Horsley
Then Cole and Horsley arrived on the scene. Cole was a friend of Queen Victoria’s husband, the Prince Consort, Albert, a German who had recently introduced his native Christmas tree to England. It seems possible that Cole may have learned about the continental New Year cards from the Prince.
In 1846, three years after Cole had commissioned Horsley, one thousand copies of the first Christmas card were produced. It was a hand-coloured lithograph showing a family drinking a toast, and it bore the caption: ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’
Unfortunately it didn’t sell. Henry Cole gave up on the Christmas card business, and turned his attention to other things. Under the patronage of Prince Albert, he planned and largely organised the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was subsequently appointed director of the South Kensington Museum in London, which later became the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But since the turn of the nineteenth century, diverse influences had been pulling and pushing at the old Roman idea of sending gifts to the Emperor. For example, in many parts of Europe St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, had his festival day on 6 December, and it was the custom for parents to secretly convey presents to their children on the evening before and pretend that they were brought by St Nicholas. The contraction of St Nicholas to Santa Claus and the transference of this custom to Christmas made Yuletide immensely popular.
Christmas cards were about to make a comeback, and not only because colour printing was becoming cheaper. The penny post, originated by Rowland Hill, was looming on the horizon. Interestingly, the adhesive stamp was invented by none other than … Sir Henry Cole. By 1877 the first ‘Post Early for Christmas’ notices appeared, and there has been virtually no let up ever since.