Artful Advice

Designing the first holiday card

How the festive paper tradition first began

The history of holiday cards began in England. In 1843, senior civil servant Henry Cole wanted to get more people using the mail. Three years earlier, he helped found The Penny Post, a system which meant a letter could be sent for just a penny. Previously hefty fees had meant only the rich could afford postage. Henry wanted to give ordinary people more reasons to connect with each other through the post, so teamed up with painter John Callcott Horsley to design the first holiday cards.


John’s illustration featured a family raising a glass of wine to the card’s recipient, along with charitable people helping others. There were some concerns from the public over the presence of children in a drinking scene. Despite this, the batch of 2,000 cards Henry printed all sold out, and a new Christmas tradition was born.

Throughout the 19th century, as printing processes and postage became cheaper and easier, the trend grew and spread across the world. Winter wonderland scenes and festive red robins were popular designs. The birds represented Robin Redbreasts, the nickname for postmen who wore red waistcoats in the mid-1800s.


The first personalized card was designed by Annie Oakley, international star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Whilst on tour in Scotland during Christmas 1891, she had a photo of herself taken in a kilt. Using this image, Annie designed a card and had them printed by a local printer. Then she sent them to her friends and family back home in the States. Thanks to Annie, holiday photo cards are a well-loved tradition that have lived on, an opportunity for families to share significant events from the year with their loved ones.

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