Behold! The Very First Christmas Card (1843)

Christ­mas cards aren’t just an anachro­nism.

They’re almost an endan­gered species, the vic­tim of the Inter­net, postal rate increas­es, and the jet­ti­son­ing of any time con­sum­ing tra­di­tion whose exe­cu­tion has been found to bring the oppo­site of joy.

Above, Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um cura­tors Alice Pow­er and Sarah Beat­tie take us on a back­wards trip to a time when the exchange of Christ­mas cards was a source of true social mer­ri­ment.

Christ­mas cards must hold a spe­cial place in both the V&A’s col­lec­tions and heart, giv­en that the museum’s founder, Hen­ry Cole, inad­ver­tent­ly invent­ed them in 1843.

As a well respect­ed man about town, he received a great many more hol­i­day let­ters than he had time or incli­na­tion to respond to, but nei­ther did he wish to appear rude.

So he enlist­ed his friend, painter J.C. Hors­ley, to cre­ate a fes­tive illus­tra­tion with a built-in hol­i­day greet­ing, leav­ing just enough space to per­son­al­ize with a recipient’s name and per­haps, a hand­writ­ten line or two.

He then had enough post­card-sized repro­duc­tions print­ed up to send to 1000 of his friends.

(It’s hell being pop­u­lar…)

Talk about zeit­geist: Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol was first pub­lished that very same hol­i­day sea­son.

No won­der every­one want­ed in on the fun.

Part of the rea­son the cards in the V&A’s col­lec­tion are so well pre­served is that their recip­i­ents prized them enough to keep them in sou­venir albums.

Under­stand­ably. They’re very appeal­ing lit­tle arti­facts.

The upper crust could afford such fan­cy design ele­ments as clever die-cut shapes, pop up ele­ments, and translu­cent win­dows that encour­aged the recip­i­ents to hold them up to actu­al win­dows.

Tech­no­log­i­cal advances in the print­ing indus­try, and the cre­ation of the cost-effec­tive Pen­ny Post allowed those whose bud­gets were more mod­est than Mr. Cole’s to par­tic­i­pate too.

Their cards tend­ed to be sim­pler in exe­cu­tion, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­cept.

In addi­tion to the views we’ve come to expect — win­ter, Father Christ­mas, hol­ly — the Vic­to­ri­ans had a thing for jol­ly anthro­po­mor­phized food and some tru­ly shame­less puns.

Enjoy these Ghosts of Christ­mas Past, dear read­ers. We’re almost inspired to revive the tra­di­tion!

Read more about the advent of this tra­di­tion, includ­ing how it jumped the pond, in Smith­son­ian Magazine’s His­to­ry of the Christ­mas Card.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

When Sal­vador Dalí Cre­at­ed Christ­mas Cards That Were Too Avant Garde for Hall­mark (1960)

J.R.R. Tolkien Sent Illus­trat­ed Let­ters from Father Christ­mas to His Kids Every Year (1920–1943)

Langston Hugh­es’ Home­made Christ­mas Cards From 1950

Watch Ter­ry Gilliam’s Ani­mat­ed Short, The Christ­mas Card (1968)

Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christ­mas Car­ol Just Like Charles Dick­ens Read It

An Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion of Charles Dick­ens’ Clas­sic Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol (1971)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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