December 11, 2015, by Kathryn Steenson

A back-of-the-envelope history of Christmas cards

If you were asked to guess what the very first Christmas card depicted, what would your answer be? Most people (according to an unofficial poll of my colleagues) thought either a Nativity scene or possibly one of a snowy landscape.

Sensible ideas, but both wrong. The first Christmas card was commissioned in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was a civil servant who was Assistant Keeper of the Public Records Office (now The National Archives) and an inventor who was involved with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. It was hardly surprising that a few years later, he was the man who created a product that would be posted, whilst also providing him with quick and easy way to answer the large amount of correspondence he received.

The first Christmas card, 1843, with a rich family feasting the in centre with a starving family on the left, and the same poor family receiving charity on the right

The first Christmas card, 1843, designed by John Callcott Horsley at Cole’s request.

The central image showed a family around a table, raising a toast to the recipients’ good health, with the message ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you’. There is a nod to Christian charity in the images of the poor being fed and clothed at either side of the card, but the main focus is on having good cheer.

As we all know, Cole’s idea caught on, albeit slowly. The Temperance movement (more about which here) was gaining support in England and the inclusion of children drinking wine on the card displeased some people. The following year other designs were available. From very early on, people could choose from the familiar themes of snow, Father Christmas, Nativity scenes, and robins, or the now-rare image of blooming flowers, intended as a reminder that spring would arrive soon.

Card with an engraving of Nottingham Castle on the cliffs above the river

Businesses, though, tended to be more secular in their images. They functioned both as a thank-you to customers, colleagues, suppliers etc, and as a reminder of the business without being an overt advertisement. These are a selection of images of Christmas cards sent by Post Office at Nottingham between 1883-1890 (EMSC Pamphlet Not 3.G42 GEN). They are all nice enough images of notable places in Nottingham, but none of them are especially Christmassy. I suppose the photo of Market Square does look a little like the current Christmas Market, minus the festive decorations, but the photograph seems to have been taken much earlier in the year.

Faded photograph of market day at Market Square, Nottingham, clearly taken in summer

These and other Christmas related collections are available to view at Manuscripts & Special Collections on KMC. We will be closed Christmas Eve and reopen on Monday 4th January.

For those of you who are feeling guilty at not having written your cards for this year yet, the last posting dates are available from the Royal Mail website.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you!

Posted in AnnouncementsFrom the collections