December 16, 2014 // Kristi Frisch

The Very First Christmas Card

Over a billion holiday cards are sent every year. And, here’s the one that started it all:

The first mass-produced Christmas cards, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You," were commissed by London civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Deciding that he was too busy to write individual greetings to family, friends and business colleagues, Cole reached out to his friend and local artist John Callcott Horsley, asking him to design a card that he could mail instead.

Horsley designed a triptych (a design in three parts) centered around the image of a family raising a toast to the recipient of the card. Each side panel depicts an act of charity—feeding the hungry (left) and clothing the poor (right)—which encouraged recipients to remember the true meaning of Christmas.

Believe it or not, these first Christmas cards weren't immediately successful. In fact, the design caused a bit of a controversy in Victorian English society because it shows a child taking a sip from a glass of wine, and critics accused it of promoting drunkenness.

The card design was lithographed (a process used to print an authorized copy of an original artwork) on stiff cardboard in a dark sepia ink and then individually colored by hand. Of the 1,000 cards printed, only a handful still exist today. They can be found in private collections, such as the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University.

One of the original 1843 cards (shown at the top of the page) made out to "My very dear Father & Mother" and signed by "Their loving Son, Joe" along with the red printer’s proof (shown above) inscribed "To Mr. & Mrs. G. Wallis & family from Henry Cole 1865” sold together for $8,750 at Sotheby’s auction in 2010.

A lithographed Fore's Christmas Envelope (shown above), addressed to "His old young friends Emma & Agnes" and signed by the designer of the card "J. C. Horsley, Xmasse 1843," sold for $13,125 at Sotheby’s auction in 2010.

Commercial printing of Christmas cards took off in the 1860s once color printing was available. Sending printed Christmas cards, opposed to hand-written letters, became popular because they were time-efficient and cost-effective—criteria that drives decision making to this day.

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