A Different Old King Cole

on Thursday, 20 December 2012. Posted in Seasons

As the charity Christmas card shops pop up in every town centre and sales of the bits and pieces to ‘make your own’ increase each year, perhaps I’d like to take a look back to the instigator of this industry which generates over £200 million each year.

Poppy design Christmas Card, 1930s
Part of Wiltshire Local Studies Ephemera Collection
Ref: HEW.920

The first commercial Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole (also known as ‘old king Cole’). He would send hand written cards to his friends and family on decorated paper but as his list grew longer he realised this was inefficient and commissioned John Callcott Horsely (brother-in-law to Isambard Kingdom Brunel) to produce an illustration which was then duplicated with a printed message.

The message inside wished everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ and became the standard message from then on. Merry at that time meant pleasing or agreeable rather than the present day connotation of jovial or even tipsy. Henry had more cards printed than he needed and sold the extra cards at a price, making them affordable to most people. He had also helped with the introduction of the penny post three years earlier and gradually the availability of cheap commercial cards led to the tradition we know today.

The very earliest cards were wood block prints made in Germany to celebrate New Year in the 14th century. By the early 18th century children would send decorated messages to demonstrate their handwriting skills on special paper with engraved borders and often sent in decorated envelopes. Early cards did not necessarily show our traditional Christmas scenes but looked forward to spring with sentimental images of flowers or fairies.

Primrose design Christmas Card
Ref: 1720/846

Cards became more elaborate with the addition of fringing, silks and satins and embroidery with the card shaped into a fan or other seasonal shapes.

Robin with lacework design
Ref: 1720/846

Designs evolved and during the war years produced many patriotic symbols such as flags, or more nostalgic scenes reminding both those at the front and families left behind of happier times.  During the 1st World War black humour crept in with comic verses to keep the spirits up. The numbers of cards also increased during the war years as keeping in touch became more precious.Armoured Division 1939-44
Christmas Cards from The Front, WWII
Ref: 3112/24

Christmas cards are a good indicator of the changes in graphic design, artwork and the development of IT through the 20th century; nowadays the sending of e-cards is becoming ever more prevalent.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas

Lucinda Jones
Records Assistant


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