With the exchange of Christmas cards being such a routine feature of the holiday season, many people are unaware that the first Christmas card was producedin Great Britain only in 1843, the year that also saw the publication of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Prior to the introduction of the penny post in 1840, Christmas greetings exchanged through the mail were handwritten seasonal messages included on calling cards or in folded letters.
Christmas celebrations flourished in England in the 1840s, and many German traditions, such as Christmas trees, were popularized by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. And it was an associate of Prince Albert's, Henry Cole (1808-1882), who was too busy - or perhaps found it too much of an imposition - to write long personal Christmas greetings to his numerous friends and relations, who produced the first Christmas card.
The name Henry Cole should sound familiar to philatelists. He was a strong supporter of Rowland Hill, and from 1837 to 1840 acted as his assistant, playing a key role in the introduction of the penny post. In fact, he is sometimes credited with selecting the design of the world's first postage stamp, the Penny Black.
Cole also was the manager of the "Great Exhibition of the Works of lndustry of All Nations;" held in 1851. Popularly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, the five-month event was enormously popular and a financial success. It is estimated that as much as a third of the population of Great Britain traveled to London to visit the exhibition.
Among other things, the Great Exhibition was the impetus for the development of the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington Museum in the 1850s (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899), of which Henry Cole became the first director. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1875.
Cole employed the services of a personal friend, the London artist John Calcott Horsley (1817-1895), to create his 1843 greeting card. Horsley’s illustration was a triptych design, with a center piece and two side panels. The center, full-color image shows a family raising their glasses in a toast around a Christmas feast, while the side panels illustrate feeding and clothing the poor.
The ancient Christmas symbols of holly and ivy are used throughout the design. There is a space at the top for the name of the recipient, and a line at the bottom for the sender’s name, with A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You printed in a hanging banner. Cole printed 1,000 cards and, after having used as many as he needed, he sold the remainder at 6d (sixpence) each, now the equivalent of about $4. These were advertised in the Athenaeum paper:
Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of the Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.
Although the original card was criticized by temperance groups because it pictured a family, and in particular a young girl, sipping wine, the concept of exchanging Christmas greeting cards soon became very popular. The London printers Charles Goodall & Sons were the first to mass-produce Christmas cards in 1862. (Incidentally, Goodall & Sons produced most of the playing cards used in Great Britain at that time.)
With the introduction of halfpenny stamps in 1870 for the printed matter rate, the popularity of Christmas cards soared. By 1880 more than 11.5 million cards were being sent each year. Over the course of time, popular themes expanded to include decorated Christmas trees, winter scenes, throwing snowballs, tobogganing, and robin redbreasts, as well as the traditional Father Christmas and religious images.
Holiday greetings cards were imported from England to the United States until 1875, when Louis Prang, a German immigrant living in Roxbury, Boston, started publishing high-quality Christmas cards for the American market. Initially, his cards were unrelated to the Christmas scene and featured flowers and birds.
Prang was an experienced lithographer and produced color reproductions of oil paintings. For his Christmas cards, he used up to twenty colors. By the early 1880s he was producing more than 5 million cards each year, and began to include typical Christmas scenes, such as snow scenes, glowing fireplaces, children playing with toys, and fir trees.
An 1878 Prang card showing a cherub ringing a Christmas bell was used for one of the 1975 U.S. Christmas stamps — incidentally the centenary of Prang’s first card. Prang is sometimes referred to as “The Father of the American Christmas card.”