Around Christmas 1843, a prominent educator and patron of the arts, Henry Cole had a problem. He’d been instrumental in setting up the Uniform Penny Post in the UK, allowing regular folk to send letters across the country for a penny, and his friends were sending him Christmas mail by the buckets.
Like those of us today who can’t catch up with our email, Henry knew he could not reply to every letter, so he came up with a novel solution. He took a sketched idea to his artist friend John Callcott Horsley and asked him to design an illustrated Christmas greeting card which he could mass produce. They printed 1000 copies of the card, Cole sent them off to his friends and the left overs were put on sale for a shilling a card at an emporium he owned.
The card featured a central scene of a family around the Christmas dinner table toasting the viewer with drinks, book-ended by scenes of Christian charity and good deeds. The decorative lettering read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.
The card was not a commercial success. For one, a shilling was considered too steep a price, but may be more crucially, the image of Christmas cheer was controversial. At a time when the church and society in general were in the throes of the temperance movement, an image of children holding drinks was considered in bad taste and encouraging youthful drunkenness.
The idea of a Christmas card would lay dormant for another few decades before catching on among the general public, but eventually it did catch on. The rest we’ve known and seen and saved carefully in musty drawers as memories for years to come.
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