In 1843, senior civil servant Henry Cole wanted to get more people using the post. Three years earlier he had helped found the Penny Post, the system which meant a letter could be sent for the price of a penny instead of the previously hefty postage fees which only the rich had been able to afford. Now Henry wanted to give ordinary people more reasons to connect with each other through the post. And here lightning struck – or perhaps, à la Isaac Newton and his apple, he was standing under one of those trendy new German imports, a Christmas tree, and a bauble bounced on his bonce. Or perhaps not. But what definitely did happen is that he decided to team up with painter pal John Callcott Horsley to design the first commercial Christmas cards.
The first commercial Christmas card, designed by Sir Henry Cole and John Callcott Horsley
John’s illustration featured charitable people helping the poor on the left and right of the card, with a central image of a family raising a glass of wine to the card’s recipient but – RING THE VICTORIAN MORAL OUTRAGE ALARM! – the kids were guzzling the vino too! Some of the public were apparently not best pleased with this. Though it didn’t seem to harm sales as the modest batch of 2,000 cards Henry printed all sold out. And a new Christmas tradition was born.
Throughout the 19th century, as the post became cheaper across Europe and the US, and printing processes easier, the trend grew and spread across the world. In Britain, images of juvenile winos lost out in the fashionable card stakes to winter wonderland scenes, in memory of the snow that enveloped the country in the Christmas of 1836. Robins were also popular, though not for reasons you may have realised: in the mid-1800s, postmen wore red waistcoats and so those cheeky Victorian ragamuffins nicknamed them Robin Redbreasts – the robins pictured on cards represented the men carrying them in their sacks.
Annie Oakley, sharpest shooter in the West
But what about personalised Christmas cards? Something which is close to our hearts at Papier. Apparently it was celebrity sharpshooter Annie Oakley, international star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show who sent the first ones. Whilst on tour in Scotland during Christmas 1891 she had a photo of herself taken in a kilt, designed a card featuring the image and had them printed by a local printer. Then she sent them to her friends and family back home in the States. Now when you design your Papier Christmas photo cards you can think to yourself that you’re following in the footsteps of Annie.