The First Printed Christmas Card

Victorian Christmases were filled with paper ephemera. From books and board games to cards conveying holiday greetings and calendars, such products were readily available to just about everyone. Some holiday items featured now traditional images, including Santa filling stockings, snow angels holding candles, children caroling, holly wreaths, angelic nativity scenes, and jolly snowmen. Others were decorated with nontraditional, fanciful, and even sometimes with bizarre images.

First Printed Christmas Card, The John and Carolyn Grossman Collection, Winterthur Library

Homemade Christmas card greetings gave way to commercially produced ones beginning in 1843. As printing technology advanced and mail delivery became increasingly reliable, more people conveyed their greetings to family and friends using commercial cards. Early ones were typically single or double sided and printed on stiff paper. Like today, they were often thrown out after the holidays; those that were kept frequently became part of scrap albums. Today we appreciate Victorian-era cards for their artistry and the insight they provide about the era in which they were made and enjoyed.

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole of London wanted to ease his seasonal task of handwriting Christmas greetings to his friends. He asked John Calcott Horsley, an artist, to design a holiday card for his use. Horsley’s work depicted a festive Victorian family surrounded by images of feeding and clothing the poor. An estimated 1,000 copies of the card were printed, and after Cole used what he needed, the rest were sold for one shilling each. Only about twenty of these cards are known to exist today in libraries and archives.

Even rarer than the Cole-Horsley Christmas card is its printer’s proof in red ink, which was intended to show how the card would look before its final print run. Cole inscribed it to William Matchwick, a friend. The only details from the finished card not to appear on this proof were the “To” and “From” areas and the publisher’s credit line. There are only four remaining proofs now known.

Printer’s Proof of the First Printed Christmas Card, The John and Carolyn Grossman Collection, Winterthur Library

Both the card and proof can be seen in the Winterthur Library as part of the John and Carolyn Grossman Collection, an assemblage of about 250,000 items documenting chromolithography during the 19th and 20th centuries.

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian.


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