Christmas cards of an early form can be dated back to Medieval Europe, when wood engravers produced religious themes in print. But the modern Christmas card can be dated back to Victorian Britain and in particular one man. Sir Henry Cole had been famed for modernising the British postal system, arranging the Great Exhibition, construction of the Albert Hall and overseer of the Victoria and Albert museum. Added to this he also had an arts shop on Bond Street, London. It was here in the Summer of 1843 that he commissioned John Callcott Horsley.
He commissioned him to design a form of greeting card to be sent out at Christmas. It is believed that Cole had so many greetings to send at Christmas he could not face hand writing them all, so 1,000 hand-coloured lithographs were produced. The design showed acts of charity, “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” around the scene of a merry family and with the message of, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” And those he didn’t use were sold for 1s.each (In 2005 one of the remaining 12 cards was auctioned for £9,000).
It is unclear if Cole sent any cards the following year but the idea had taken a hold and the early Christmas cards were very popular. The theme of the cards were generally not religious but instead flowers, fairies and Father Christmas were popular.
Up until the mid 1860’s, the majority of Christmas cards were produced within the artistic and literary circles. But in 1866 Charles Goodall & Son were the first company to mass produce Christmas cards. Josiah Goodall commissioned Marcus Ward & Co. to lithograph, four designs by C.H.Bennet with the border design by Luke Limner of robins, mistletoe and holly. Here was the start of what was to become the modern day Christmas card.
By the 1880’s many leading artists of the day like Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Thomas Crane were famous for the designing of Christmas greeting cards. Even well-known writers contributed their work to the creation of the greeting cards.
In America the introduction of Christmas greeting cards was also very popular. So much so that Louis Prang was producing over five million cards by 1881. His designs were different to Britain. Unlike Britain, snow scenes were popular as well as fir trees and glowing fireplaces.