December 2016 – Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley, 1843

Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley, 1843This is a copy of the first commercially produced Christmas Card.  It is part of a vast collection of political Christmas cards generously donated to the museum by Llewellyn Smith, who also co-wrote a book with his late wife Pam Smith, Glad Tidings of Struggle and Strife: A History of Protest Christmas Cards, on the subject.  Many of the cards were exhibited at the museum in Politics, Protest and the Christmas Card which ran from December 2010 to January 2011.  This particular card was commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843 because he was too busy to write to all of his friends and family at Christmas.  It was designed by John Calcott Horsley, a successful artist of the time who also produced a fresco which is in the House of Lords.

The card set a precedent for modern day cards with its message ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.’  The image in the centre section is of a family raising a toast to Christmas.  This caused controversy with Puritans who disapproved of the depiction of a family celebrating Christmas with alcohol.  The illustrations either side of this scene show poor people being given food and clothing – much less controversial imagery!

The card was so popular with Henry Cole and its recipients that 1,000 cards were produced to be sold at one shilling each, a cost prohibitive to many in Victorian England.  However, advancements in printing technology and the introduction of the half penny post made the sending of Christmas cards more economically viable, and by 1880 11.5 million cards were produced.  This formed part of the ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas which is still evolving, with many companies now having so-called ‘Black Friday’ sales to encourage people to spend more money on Christmas, and many employers giving workers extra time off to do their Christmas shopping.

Although this marks its status as the first commercially produced Christmas Card, it is believed that the first non-commercial Christmas card was produced in Germany several centuries prior to Horsley’s design.

  • There will be a small display of this and several other of the Christmas cards in the museum foyer running throughout December.