Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings

The Christmas Card

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Did you know that Christmas card is BIG Business here in America and around the world? Retail sales of greeting cards are estimated at more than $7.5 billion a year. The Christmas card industry has been around for many, many years, now 177 years old.

Americans are a mobile people and a simple little Christmas card, a gesture of goodwill, love and affection, is sent to special friends and family members all over the world. It has always been a way to keep in touch, wishing the best to loved ones during the holiday season. And we must not forget all these simple Christmas cards have grown up around the birth of Christ.

And yet few people know the history of the Christmas card or how the card got started. It all started in December 1843 in London, England, when a man had an overabundance of mail piling up in his household.  

Sir Henry Cole 1808-1882, an energetic, charismatic, and quite handsome man in his day is credited with sending the first Christmas cards in 1843. The Christmas card was introduced to the public, and the phrase, “Merry Christmas” were the first words on a commercialized card.

Sir Henry was an English public servant, art patron, and educator. At the age of 15 he started clerking for the Public Records historian and eventually became assistant keeper of Public Records office in London, now called the Post Office. He was also the right hand man of Prince Albert’s success in the Great Exhibition of Industry of all Nations in 1851, commonly called the Crystal Palace. He was the founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum and served as its first director.

In 1840 Sir Henry was very instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up and introducing the Uniform Penny Post. Before that only the very rich could afford to send anything in the post.  With the penny post this encouraged ordinary people to use the post office. Today these Penny Post stamps with Queen Victoria’s picture are collected by philatelists from all over the world. 

Christmas was a busy time in the Cole family’s household with lots of unanswered mail piling up. What to do with all these letters?  A timeless solution was needed. Sir Henry turned to a friend and fellow artist John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903) for help in his new illustrated idea.

With a sketch of his family, he took one of John Horsley illustrations, copying and showing a family sitting down at a table celebrating the holiday, with images of people helping the poor. The image was printed on a stiff cardboard, 5 & 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top, “To _________ allowing Sir Henry to personalize his response which included the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New year To You.” This was the beginning of our Christmas card industry and the ancestor of today’s Christmas card.

In Sir Henry’s diary on December 17th 1843, he records, “In the evening Horsley came and brought his design for Christmas Cards.” Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central hand colored panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity. Sir Henry then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalized with hand written greeting. It proved to be a big success.

Today many of Cole’s Christmas cards are collector’s items, sought after by collectors all over. In 2001 a Christmas card sent by Sir Henry Cole’s to his grandmother was sold at auction in Great Britain for 22,500 pounds or $30,085.50.

In 1962 our United States Postal Service got into the act and introduced us to the Christmas stamp depicting a wreath, two candles and the words "Christmas 1962", adding to the popularity of the American Christmas card.

Sir Henry Cole’s first Christmas card was just a convenient way for him to answer his huge correspondence. And this my friends is how we got the Christmas card we know and enjoy today. 

Sir Henry Cole left something special to all of us, a timeless, simple Christmas card, a simple message to keep in touch with family and friends faraway, making our Christmas holidays much richer as time goes by.   

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com