Season’s Greetings!

Due to separation from family and friends and coronavirus restrictions, sending Christmas cards to loved ones is more important than ever this year. The sending of cards is a tradition rooted in our culture but how did it become so?

Christmas Card, c.1870s. Published by Robert Canton

It is believed that the Ancient Chinese and Egyptians were the first people to exchange greetings in this way. The Chinese exchanged messages of good will to celebrate the New Year. The early Egyptians conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls.

By the early to mid-1400s handmade greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The Germans were printing greetings from woodcuts, although these were expensive. Handmade Valentines were also being given in various parts of Europe at this time.

In the 1700s tradesmen, for commercial reasons, would send New Year cards to their customers. Children would also produce decorated ‘Christmas Pieces’ for their parents, with a yuletide greeting in their best writing on a special sheet of paper. During the early 1800s many people used coloured decorative scraps to transform visiting cards into Christmas cards.

The ‘First’ Commercial Christmas Card.
Copyright Victorian and Albert Museum

The first commercial Christmas card is largely accepted to have been designed and printed in London in 1843. The card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant. The artist John Callcott Horsley was employed to design the card. It featured a family drinking draughts of wine and figures representing the charitable acts of ‘feeding the hungry’ and ‘clothing the naked’. One thousand cards were printed and Cole used as many as required before selling the rest for one shilling each.

It took some time for Henry Cole’s Christmas card idea to catch on with the wider public. In fact, until 1878, more Valentine cards were sent in the post each year than Christmas cards. However, advances in printing and mass production methods and reductions in postal costs changed all of this.

Christmas Card, c.1870s. Published by Marcus Ward & Co.

In 1862, Charles Goodall & Son, a London printing firm, introduced the first broad selection of Christmas cards in Britain. Other publishers soon followed suit. Robert Canton, originally a publisher of Valentine cards, began selling a collection of Christmas cards in the 1860s. Marcus Ward & Company was known for its high quality Christmas cards throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

Christmas Card, c.1870s/1880s. Published by Charles Goodall & Sons

Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the most prolific greeting card publishers of all time. Raphael Tuch was born at Koschmin, East Prussia in 1821. In 1866 he immigrated to London with his wife and seven children, having lost all of his possessions during the Austro-Prussian war. The family opened a small shop selling pictures and frames but soon expanded into printing.

The family name was changed slightly to ‘Tuck’ and three of Raphael’s sons joined the business and in 1871 Raphael produced his first Christmas cards. In 1880, his son Adolph now managing director, launched a nationwide contest offering £5,000 in prizes for the best Christmas card designs. Over five thousand paintings were said to be have been entered in the contest. Entries were displayed in the Dudley Galleries and vast crowds visited the exhibition.

Christmas Card, c.1880s/1890s. Published by Raphael Tuck & Sons

Designs for the earlier Victorian Christmas and New Year cards covered all manner of themes, although many were not particularly seasonal. Countryside views, flowers, sentimental illustrations of children and humorous subjects were common subjects.

Christmas Card, c.1870s. Published by Louis Prang of America

In the Edwardian period, greeting cards continued to be an essential part of Christmas. Cards were now folded and manufactured in huge quantities. Designs were inspired by the Art Nouveau style and tended to be not as bright or colourful as Victorian cards.

Christmas Card, 1900-1910. Publisher Unknown

Today the British public spend around £1.7 billion on greeting cards every year – an astonishing 900 million single greeting cards.