Seasonal: Sir Henry Cole and his Christmas Card

Sir Henry Cole worked under the pseudonym Felix Summerly. He was born in Somerset, England on July 15, 1808. He is known for combining industry with the arts. While working for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, he was so busy with his day to day dealings that he felt there had to be an easier way of keeping in touch with friends and family. His idea led the way to what we know today as Christmas Cards.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum of London:

Henry Cole (1808 – 1882) was a prominent civil-servant, educator, inventor and the first director of the V&A. In the 1840s, he was instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards. Christmas was a busy time in the Cole household and with unanswered mail piling up, a timesaving solution was needed. Henry turned to his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley to illustrate his idea.

Cole’s diary entry for 17 December 1843 records, “In the Evg Horsley came & brought his design for Christmas Cards”. Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity. Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalised his card to Cole by drawing a tiny self-portrait in the bottom right corner instead of his signature, along with the date “Xmasse, 1843”.

Cole’s Christmas card was also published and offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop. But the 1840s was a period of change, with Prince Albert introducing various German Christmas traditions to the British public, including the decorated Christmas tree.

Cole may have been ahead of his time but the commercialisation of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. More affordable Christmas gift-books and keepsakes were aimed at the growing middle classes, and authors responded to the trend: Charles Dickens wrote Christmas themed stories for Household Words and All the Year Round and published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the 1870s the Christmas trend was firmly established.

Below are the illustrations used for the first ever Christmas Card. It is a beautiful sentiment to include the two acts of caring for those in need. The middle panel though – that kid drinking the wine!

For more reading on the subject of Sir Henry Cole, here are a few links:

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