February 25, 2017

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First Christmas Card


Do you think signing and mailing all those Christmas cards is a bother?

Guess why they were invented in the first place?

If you think signing, licking, stamping and mailing Christmas cards is a time-consuming chore, you’ll be surprised to learn why they were invented in the first place – to save time.

The honor belongs to Henry Cole, who introduced them in 1843.

Cole was a distinguished British civil servant who worked in the Public Records Office of the British National Archives. He also organized the British Postal system, published the Guide newspaper, the Historical Register and the Journal of Design. In addition, he founded London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and on the side Cole did business as “Felix Summerly” – producing children’s books and an award winning teapot under that name. He’s also credited with designing the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black.

As if that weren’t enough, he led the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – which promoted industrial design.

All very useful stuff.

But the most useful thing Henry Cole invented is something almost everyone’s used at one time or another — a way to quickly and efficiently share holiday greetings — the Christmas card.

You see, with all his activities, Henry Cole had little time to spare. But because he lived in the Victorian era, when people routinely wrote long holiday letters to friends and loved ones, he risked looking like – well, Scrooge — if he didn’t spread holiday cheer by mail.

Unfortunately, with a huge circle of friends, handwriting holiday greetings was impossible for Cole. So he came up with a solution. He hired  illustrator John Calcott Horlsey to paint a cheerful holiday scene: a family – including a small child — drinking wine, surrounded on either side by people clothing the poor and feeding the hungry. Below were the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”  Cole printed the graphic on 1,000 cards, hand colored them, then mailed them.

Cole’s cards were a holiday sensation. So he began selling them via newspaper for a shilling each. He not only solved his problem, he profited from it too. Soon greeting card companies popped up all over England. (And just in case you’re a purist, you should know that few early Christmas cards depicted religious scenes or winter settings. Most featured light hearted fantasy imagery.)

Henry Cole was a man of many achievements. But like Clement Moore before him – a poet, philanthropist and city planner who dashed off “The Night before Christmas” on a lark – Cole, the inventor, scholar, and entrepreneur – would forever be remembered for his simplest, most humble creation — the Christmas card.

So the next time you complain about the time it’s takes you to sign, lick and stamp all those Christmas Cards, remember – it could be worse! Those cards were invented to save you time in the first place!

Henry Cole exemplifies an axiom featured on our website: Think unique. A busy, busy man, he invented a new and efficient way to reach out to loved ones during the holidays: the Christmas card!

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