18 Dec History of Christmas cards
The custom of sending Christmas cards as we know them today started in Britain in 1840, when the first ‘Penny Post’ public postal deliveries began.
The world’s first commercial Christmas card was commissioned in 1843 by civil servant Sir Henry Cole who had helped introduce the Penny Post and Penny Black postage stamp three years earlier. Designed by Sir Henry’s artist friend, John C Horsley, 1,000 of these cards were printed, hand-coloured and sold for a shilling apiece – a price which meant the earliest Christmas cards were a luxury item and unaffordable to most people.
One of the original 1,000 cards was sold at an auction in Devizes, Wiltshire, for £20,000 on 24 November 2001. Another example was sold in December 2005 for £8,500.
Like the Penny Post – which prompted an unprecedented expansion in the popularity of mail as it became more affordable – Christmas cards were designed to encourage more people to use the postal service.
But the cards garnered little enthusiasm among the public initially as people were concerned that the central illustration focused too much on the merriment of the season, rather than more charitable endeavours such as feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. By 1860, however, such objections to joyful holiday greetings had disappeared and the custom of sending Christmas cards had become well established in Britain.
The colour of Christmas
When Christmas cards first appeared, green was the predominant colour as it reflected the use of evergreen plants such as holly, ivy and mistletoe to decorate buildings during the long dark winters.
In the mid to late 1800s, green was replaced with red when the ever popular robin was introduced to the front of Christmas cards as a symbol of the postmen and women who delivered them. At the time, Royal Mail’s postmen and women were referred to as ‘robin redbreasts’ due to the striking red waistcoats they wore to match the official red of postboxes.