The Christmas Card (Continued)

Sir Henry was an English public servant, art patron, and educator. At the age of 15 he started clerking for the Public Records historian and eventually became assistant keeper of Public Records office in London, now called the Post Office. He was also the right-hand man of Prince Albert’s, success in the Great Exhibition of Industry of all Nations in 1851, commonly called the Crystal Palace. He was the founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum and served as its first director. 

In 1840, Sir Henry was very instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up and introducing the Uniform Penny Post. Before that, only the extraordinarily rich could afford to send anything in the post. With the penny post this encouraged ordinary people to use the post office. Today these Penny Post stamps with Queen Victoria’s picture, are collected by philatelists from all over the world.


Christmas was a busy time in the Cole family’s household with lots of unanswered mail piling up.What to do with all these letters?  A timeless solution was needed. Sir Henry turned to a friend and fellow artist, John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903) for help in his new illustrated idea. 


With a sketch of his family, he took one of John Horsley illustrations, copying and showing a family sitting down at a table celebrating the holiday, with images of people helping the poor. The image was printed on a stiff cardboard, 5 1/8 x 3 1l4 inches in size. At the top, “To _________ allowing Sir Henry to personalize his response, which included the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You.” This was the beginning of our Christmas card industry and the ancestor of today’s Christmas card. 

In Sir Henry’s diary on December 17th, 1843, he records, “In the evening Horsley came and brought his design for Christmas Cards.” Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand colored panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity. Sir Henry then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalized with handwritten greeting. It proved to be a big success. 


Today, many of Cole’s Christmas cards are collector’s items, sought after by collectors all over. In 2001, a Christmas card sent by Sir Henry Cole’s to his grandmother was sold at auction in Great Britain for 22,500.00 pounds, or $30,085.50. 


In 1962 our United States Postal Service got into the act and introduced to us the Christmas stamp,  depicted a wreath, two candles and the words, Christmas 1962, adding to the popularity of the American Christmas card. 


Sir Henry Cole’s first Christmas card was just a convenient way for him to answer his huge correspondence. And this, my friends, are how we got the Christmas card we know and enjoy today.  


Sir Henry Cole left something special to all of us; a timeless, simple Christmas card, a simple message in keeping in touch with family and friends faraway, making our Christmas holidays much richer as time goes by.  


Merry Christmas! 

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