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First Christmas Card – Sir Henry Cole and The History of Christmas Cards

With Christmas quickly approaching, it’s the perfect time to learn about the history of Christmas cards. Who would have guessed that the first Christmas card ever sent by mail would spark a tradition that is still going strong over 175 years later!

Sending Christmas cards has become an integral part of Christmas, just like making snowmen, spending time with loved ones, hanging ornaments on the tree, wrapping presents, baking homemade cookies and searching the skies on Christmas Eve for Santa and his reindeer.

You might be surprised to learn that while we now send 1.6 billion Christmas cards annually in the United States, they weren’t always that popular.

So grab a mug of hot chocolate, your favorite holiday snack, and get ready to learn all about the first Christmas card, it’s history, and fun facts about Christmas cards.

A red Christmas card with pine and ornaments coming out of it against a red background with a text overlay that reads "The history of Christmas cards, what was the first Christmas card, who is Sir Henry Cole and interesting Christmas card facts".

Sir Henry Cole and the Uniform Penny Post

Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is credited with inventing the first Christmas card in 1843.

In addition to founding the V&A Museum, Sir Henry Cole was also instrumental in helping Rowland Hill reform the British Postal System.

A British postbox against greenery.

Before this reform, sending letters was very costly. The postage cost was calculated by distance travelled, and number of pages included.

People would even “cross-write” their letters to save money. These crossed letters contained two sets of writing, written perpendicularly to each other, on top of each other on the same page.

When the Uniform Penny Post was announced, it simplified the system to charging only by weight. Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee this postal system change. Sir Henry Cole was by his side, as his assistant.

The history of Christmas cards

This change in the postal system encouraged people to send letters more often. Since Sir Henry Cole was involved in this improvement of the British post, this surge in mail thrilled him!

However, it did cause a problem – Sir Henry Cole was so popular he couldn’t keep up with the volume of Christmas letters he was receiving. 

A stack of mail and Christmas cards in envelopes on a green desk to honor Louis Prang, the father of American Christmas cards.

It was considered impolite not to reply to letters, so he felt obligated to respond. However, handwriting responses to all the mail he received would take far too long.

Sir Henry Cole came up with a great idea – inventing a replicable Christmas card that could be personalized.

He asked his artist friend John Callcott Horsley to make an illustration for him with a space to write in the name of each recipient. 

The first Christmas card

John Callcott Horsley illustrated a triptych (a three panel picture) for the first Christmas card.

The center panel depicted three generations of Sir Henry Cole’s family enjoying a holiday feast and raising their glasses for a toast.

Beneath the drawing of the family is a banner with a Christmas quote that reads “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.

The side panels depicted people charitably giving to the poor. The left side showed giving food, and the right side showed giving clothing.

Three Christmas cards (two red with white trees and one beige with a white star) hanging on a line with red clothespins.

All three panels of the triptych were connected by branches and vines with Christmas greenery on them. The top of the drawing had a space to write the recipient’s name and the bottom had a space to write the sender’s name.

J.C. Horsley even signed his work by drawing a tiny cartoon-like self portrait and the words “Xmasse 1843” in the bottom right corner of the card.

The publishing house (Summerly’s Home Treasury Office, 12 Old Bond Street, London) was written on the bottom right corner of the Christmas card.

Sir Henry Cole had a thousand copies of the card printed. They were offered at a shilling a piece, which was considered expensive at the time.

Commercial Christmas cards didn’t become popular until the 1870s, so Sir Henry Cole was ahead of his time when he created the first Christmas card.

Facts about Christmas cards

Add to your knowledge of the first Christmas card by checking out these Christmas card facts below. Some may surprise you!

One of the first Christmas cards with the image of Santa holding a Christmas tree and sack of presents outside in the snow surrounded by three children.

  • 1.6 billion Christmas cards are sent every year in the United States.
  • In 2001, one of the first Christmas cards made by Sir Henry Cole sold at an auction for 22,500 pounds, which is the equivalent of about 30,000 dollars!
  • Hallmark made their first Christmas card in 1915, five years after the company opened in 1910.
  • The first commercial Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in 1843.
  • Hallmark was the first to create a folded card. People were complaining that there wasn’t enough space to write their own messages, so Hallmark doubled the writing space and became a go-to Christmas card brand.

Louis Prang & the history of Christmas cards in America

In Boston, in 1856, Louis Prang and his partner Julius Mayer created the company Prang and Mayer to create lithographs.

Their first published lithograph was a design of roses, because Prang’s wife loved the flower. If you love them too, check out our post with more facts about roses.

Louis Prang bought out his partner in 1860 and and renamed the business L. Prang & Company.

When the company fell on hard times, he branched out from his normal lithographs and also sold maps of different Civil War battle locations.

Prang took his family and went to Europe in 1864 to study chromolithography. When he returned to Boston, he began to make color lithographs.

An early Christmas card depicting four children on a red sled in the snow with the Christmas quote "A Happy Christmas" at the bottom of the card.

While his early attempts were not successful, he later achieved great success and opened additional offices in New York, San Francisco, Chicago. He also had agents in London, Melbourne, and Berlin.

In 1873 his London agent suggested turning one of his floral lithographs into a Christmas card. Prang had his agent test the Christmas cards in London.

When they proved successful, Prang introduced them to the US market in 1875 as the first Christmas cards in America. Louis Prang is considered the “father of American Christmas cards”.

When the Hall brothers created Hallmark in 1910 and started selling Christmas cards in 1915, the industry exploded with popularity!

If you found the evolution of Christmas Cards interesting, make sure to check out our post talking about how Valentine’s Day cards became one of the symbols of Valentine’s Day. Their history is just as fascinating!

Christmas card facts

Did you enjoy learning those facts about Christmas cards? Here’s some more trivia for you to enjoy!

An old Christmas card design with two little girls in white nightgowns and a Christmas quote that reads "to wish you a merry Christmas" on it to celebrate the history of Christmas cards.

  • Christmas cards came to America in 1875 through Louis Prang’s lithography business.
  • There’s an awards ceremony for Christmas cards held every May at the National Stationary Show. They hand out “Louies”, named for Louis Prang, which are the Christmas card equivalent of the Oscars!
  • The bestselling Christmas card ever (according to Hallmark) is one of three angels with two praying, and the third looking up at the reader. It made it’s debut in 1977 and to date has sold 34 million copies.
  • In San Francisco during the year 1975, Werner Erhard set the world record for most Christmas cards sent in a single year. He sent an astounding 62,824 Christmas cards!
  • The first Christmas stamp issued in the United States made it’s debut in 1962. In the UK, their first Christmas stamp appeared in 1966.

Don’t forget to share these facts about Christmas cards with your friends on twitter. Here’s a tweet to get you started:

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Christmas Card Day

Even though the first Christmas card was sent almost 200 years ago, the tradition is still alive and well today!

A red envelop with a white Christmas card that reads "merry Christmas" with red snowflakes.

There’s even an annual Christmas Card Day dedicated to celebrating and sending Christmas cards that falls on December 9th.

Even if you don’t mail your Christmas cards on that day, it still serves as a good reminder to start thinking of how you’re going to be doing your Christmas cards that year!

Christmas themed national days

If you enjoyed learning these facts about Christmas cards, you’ll be excited to know there are actually several national days of the year dedicated to other symbols of Christmas!

National days of the year are a fun way to celebrate odd and unusual foods, animals and items that you come into contact with. Be sure to check out my national day’s guide for more fun days to celebrate.

A Christmas sweater with pine cones on top of it and a brown envelope that reads Merry Christmas.

Here are some of our favorite Christmas themed national days:

If you’re like to learn more Christmas trivia, check out our posts on the history of mistletoe, and USPS Operation Santa.

Christmas card FAQs and review

Here are some of our most frequent asked questions about the history of Christmas cards, and the first Christmas card.

A vintage Christmas card design with three children next to a snowman with a silver hat.

  1. What was the first Christmas card? The first Christmas card was a three panel illustration depicting family and charity with a space to write the recipient and sender’s names.
  2. Who invented the first Christmas card? Sir Henry Cole invented the first Christmas card and John Callcott Horsley illustrated it.
  3. What country started Christmas cards? England was the country to start the tradition of sending Christmas cards.
  4. When was the 1st Christmas card sent? The first Christmas card was sent in 1843.
  5. When did Hallmark first introduce Christmas cards? Hallmark introduced Christmas cards in 1915, five years after the company was founded in 1910.
  6. Why was the first Christmas card so controversial? In the first Christmas card, the Cole family was drinking wine – one of the children was even taking a sip! The depiction of wine consumption was somewhat controversial in early days.
  7. Do they have to be “Christmas” cards? You can send any holiday card you’d like! If Christmas isn’t your holiday, feel free to send a card for any of the holidays you celebrate, or even a seasons greetings card.

Pin this post on the first Christmas card for later

Would you like a reminder of this post on the history of Christmas cards? Just pin this image to one of your Christmas boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.

You can also watch our Christmas quotes video on YouTube to get some inspiration for the Christmas messages for your Christmas cards.

A cartoon Christmas card with pine and candy coming out of it with a text overlay that reads "The history of Christmas cards, what was the first Christmas card, who is Sir Henry Cole and interesting Christmas card facts".

Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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