The First Christmas Cards

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The custom of sending Christmas Cards was established in England in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole, a senior civil servant who had helped to set up what became the Post Office was looking for a way to persuade people to use it more.

With his artist friend John Horsley he designed the world’s first printed Christmas Card, which sold for one shilling (5p). The image was made up of two side panels showing charitable acts surrounding a central depiction of a family at dinner. It was promoted as a ‘Christmas Congratulations Card …. To perpetuate kind recollections between friends’.

Improved printing methods from the 1860s, combined with a decrease in the cost of postage from one penny to half a penny in 1870, saw production of cards grow into big business. By the early 1900s, the custom of sending cards had spread worldwide. One of the first publishers to mass produce Christmas Cards was the British firm of Charles Goodall and Co., who commissioned the Belfast firm of Marcus Ward and Co in 1866 and 1867 to make lithographs of sets of drawing by the artist C H Bennet for them to print and sell.

Early Christmas Cards rarely showed winter or religious scenes, but favoured flowers and other images that reminded the recipient of the coming of Spring. Sentimental pictures of children and animals were also popular. Postmen in Victorian England were popularly known as ‘Robins’ because of their red uniforms, so robins quickly appeared as a motif on Christmas Cards as a reminder of how they were delivered.