|The first Christmas card in 1843.|
The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Henry Cole. A great innovator of the nineteenth century, he was instrumental in the re-organisation of the postal services and with Rowland Hill initiated the Penny Post in 1840.
Henry Cole commissioned John Callcot Horsely to design a greetings card to send to his acquaintances wishing them a happy Christmas. 50 cards were originally lithographed by the firm of Jobbins located in Warwick Court in Holborn, London, and were hand coloured by William Mason.
The card was in the form of a triptych with the outer panels depicting 'feeding the hungry' and 'clothing the naked' to remind recipients to remember those less fortunate than themselves. The centre panel showed a family of adults and children all enjoying a glass of wine. This drew a great deal of criticism at the time on the grounds of 'fostering the moral corruption of children.'
Soon the sending of cards became de rigueur for the middle classes. Early cards showed religious themes and the winter scenes we still often see but many featured flowers, animals or fairies and looked forward to the following year with scenes of spring.
Queen Victoria commissioned the first Official Christmas card that same decade - she also sent numerous cards to family members and her servants at Osborne and Windsor.
Charles Goodall & Sons of Camden Town was one of the first companies to produce Christmas cards on a large scale. Designs became very elaborate with decorations of silken fringes or lacy cut-outs while others were shaped like fans, candles or bells. Pop-up cards would reveal winter scenes such as ice-skating on a mirrored pond.
Robins, still popular today, were featured from the 1850s. As Victorian postmen were nicknamed robins owing to their red uniforms, cards frequently depicted robins delivering cards. Father Christmas began to appear on cards some twenty years later.
In the years leading up the First World War, cards often illustrated inventions of the new century including motor-cycles, aeroplanes and cars. On the outbreak of war in 1914 the government considered banning the sending of greetings cards for security reasons but relented when it was appreciated that contact between soldiers and their families was vital for morale. The Royal Family revived the tradition of sending Christmas cards when the young Princess Mary decided to send every serving soldier and sailor a greetings card and a brass tin containing gifts. Similar boxes were also sent to nurses.
There was a significant increase in the number of cards sent during the war years, which was to be repeated during the Second World War when cards often depicted patriotic themes and symbols such as flags to convey national pride, but those featuring home and hearth were popular too.
The first charity cards are believed to be produced by UNICEF in 1949. Many a charity now relies on income from Christmas cards but to really benefit charities, buy those that are produced by the charity itself rather than those sold through High Street shops where the percentage for charity is often less than 10%.
Canada issued the first Christmas stamps in 1898 but the first UK Christmas stamps were not produced until 50 years ago. In 1966 a competition was set up by Tony Benn, then Postmaster General. Two six year olds won, with a design of a King of the Orient and a snowman respectively.
Royal Mail's recent research shows that most people still prefer to receive actual cards as opposed to e-cards or other social media greetings. I certainly do. Each year at least a couple of people I know announce via social media that they are not sending Christmas cards and giving the money to charity instead. While I totally approve of charity giving I always wonder why it's the sending of cards, that other people would enjoy, that gets dropped rather than some other Christmas tradition. I'd be much more impressed if people announced that they were not buying so much food this year, or were giving up the usual alcohol intake! I've probably been permanently crossed off a list or two now.
Every year I recycle my cards. The Woodland Trust ran a recycling scheme for 14 years with collection points at a number of High Street shops. They recycled over 600 million cards enabling them to plant 200,000 trees. Unfortunately their scheme ended in 2011 but since then Marks and Spencer have collected and recycled cards in support of The Woodland Trust and are doing so again this year. Sainsbury's also run a card recycling scheme supporting the Forest Stewardship Council. Most council recycling takes cards too although of course they won't be supporting the tree charities. But whichever scheme you choose, please do recycle your cards.
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, and for those that don't celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy winter solstice and to all of us a peaceful New Year. May 2017 bring tolerance and kindness.
Some of this article was first printed in The Greenacre Times issue 13 Winter 2009