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Published

4 December 2023

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Sir Henry Cole was a victim of his own success.

Having instigated the universal ‘penny post’ in 1840, by which any letter could be sent anywhere in the UK for a penny, he had a backlog of his own personal mail to answer. The penny post had seen an increase in letters, especially at Christmas. Sir Henry needed a neat and efficient solution and turned to his friend, artist John Callcott Horsely.

Horsley drew a happy scene of Sir Henry and his family sitting at a table, enjoying red wine. Within rustic borders, the family were further depicted doing acts of charity. Sir Henry had 1,000 cards printed and coloured by hand, which he then wrote a short personal message inside. Sir Henry Cole had just invented the Christmas card.

The history of the Christmas card

His friends liked them so much that he printed two batches of 2,050, which he sold for one shilling each, around £3 in today’s money. The relatively high cost of these first cards meant they were a novelty and not a commercial success.

The father of the American Christmas card

It took an American to make Christmas cards more commercial.

Louis Prang’s colourful cards were printed using the chromolithographic process, meaning they could be made in large quantities. Prang introduced cards to America in 1875 after successfully launching them in Britain the previous year. Prang’s success and colossal operation (over five million cards a year) began the blurring of British and American traditions. 

The history of Royal Christmas cards

The British Royal family, like many, saw Christmas as a time to send letters of good wishes to family and friends. What is sometimes described as the ‘first’ Christmas card (in fact, a letter) was sent to James I in 1611. Queen Victoria and her children wrote letters to one another at Christmas, often in the form of handmade cards.

The modern tradition of sending photographic cards was begun in 1914 by George V and Queen Mary and continues to this day.

Today, His Majesty The King sends around 700,000 cards a year.

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