The first Christmas card

The beauty of Christmas is all the traditions that accompany the celebrations. Traditions that have seemingly been there from the beginning of time, and their seemingly permanent nature gives people a sense of belonging.

Gem-size tintype, depicting a woman, mounted in a Christmas greetings to 'Uncle Alford', by James Frederick Lowrie of Liverpool, 1880 - 1881. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.
Gem-size tintype, depicting a woman, mounted in a Christmas greetings to ‘Uncle Alford’, by James Frederick Lowrie of Liverpool, 1880 – 1881. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

I myself look forward to going back to Norway to celebrate Christmas in the Norwegian way, after having spent the last four months here in Edinburgh. It has been amazing working for the Treasure Trove and the Scottish History and Archaeology department, and I have learnt a lot during my placement with National Museums Scotland. 

Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.
Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.

As I searched through the collections I learnt about the history of the first commercial Christmas card. Since I really enjoy the tradition of card giving, I decided to have a closer look to learn more. Before I started looking, I had no idea that the first card was produced in Britain. 

History of the Christmas card

The tradition of sending Christmas cards dates back to the middle of the 1800s. It was the inventor Henry Cole who commissioned the Royal Academy member and painter John Callcott Horsley to design a card to convey seasonal greetings to his friends. The result was a simple board card, divided into three sections. The centrepiece depicted a homely family party in progress, and the two side panels illustrated the spirit of Christmas charity – feeding the poor and giving them clothing.

The world's first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843.Public Domain.
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. Public Domain.

However, the card caused some controversy because it depicted a little child drinking wine. Now, that would be controversial even in 2017, or especially in 2017! Most probably the card would have been taken out of stores. However, two batches totalling 2,050 cards were sold for one shilling each back then. 

Best wishes for a Merry Christmas

Gem-size tinted tintype, depicting a man, mounted in a Christmas greetings decorated carte-de-visite card, by an unknown photographer, 1880s - 1890s
Gem-size tinted tintype, depicting a man, mounted in a Christmas greetings decorated carte-de-visite card, by an unknown photographer, 1880s – 1890s. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

Already by the beginning of the 1870s the cards had developed into small pieces of popular art. They were decorated with jewels, silks and velvets. The cards have changed over the years, and modern technology has made it possible to make almost professional-looking homemade cards.

Gem-size tintype, depicting a woman wearing a hat, mounted in a Christmas greetings decorated carte-de-visite card, by J. Jewell of Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1880s - 1890s
Gem-size tintype, depicting a woman wearing a hat, mounted in a Christmas greetings decorated carte-de-visite card, by J. Jewell of Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1880s – 1890s. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

Even in 2017, with modern technology that opens up for quicker ways to send people greetings, nothing suggests that the traditional Christmas card is going to disappear anytime soon.

Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.
Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.

How many Christmas cards will you send this year? Do you have any fun stories connected to Christmas cards you have sent or received?

Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.
Christmas cards I found in the Scottish History archive.

Countdown to Christmas with National Museums Scotland’s Sparkling Silver Advent Calendar

 

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