One of world's first printed Christmas cards goes on display

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One of world's first printed Christmas cards goes on display
The world's first printed Christmas Card, designed by Henry Cole. Photo: The Brick Row Book Shop, San Francisco, California.

by Anna Schaverien

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- For many, Christmas would not be the same without a house brimming with cards from their nearest and dearest, stamped and sent by mail or hand-delivered in the heart of the season.

For others, the printed card is an artifact of a bygone era. Putting pen to paper — and mailing it — is too much of a hassle.

But in an era of e-cards, emojis and GIFs, a London museum has put on display what the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert Museum call the world’s oldest printed Christmas card. Dating to 1843, it serves as a reminder of the enduring power of a holiday tradition.

The card was one of 1,000 commissioned by a British civil servant, Henry Cole, and illustrated by artist John Callcott Horsley, the Charles Dickens Museum in central London said.

“A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you,” the greeting reads. The illustration depicts a scene likely to be reproduced around many dining tables this year: generations of a family sitting together as they tuck into a meal with wineglasses in hand.

The sender’s language, perhaps more affectionate than is traditional today, offers little clues about the card’s age. Addressed to “My very dear father and mother,” the card is signed, “from their loving son, Joe.”

In the 176 years since they were produced, only 21 of the originals are known to have survived. The card is on loan to the Dickens museum from a book dealer in San Francisco.

More than a century after its inception, the Christmas card is still firmly embedded in the holiday. Research from the Greeting Card Association found that 1.6 billion Christmas cards were bought in the United States last year.

For the past decade, consumers have spent an average of $28 a year on holiday greeting cards and postage, according to the National Retail Federation of America.

Greeting cards are also bucking the overall trend of declining volumes of mail — the quantity of first-class mail delivered through the U.S. Postal Service is a little more than half what it was 20 years ago.

“There was somewhat of a decline when it came to greeting cards since the mid-1990s, but that decline has stopped in the last five years,” Peter Doherty, the executive director of the Greeting Card Association, said in an interview on Wednesday.

The increase in cards sales can be attributed, in part, to millennials, Doherty added.

“Younger customers who have grown up mostly receiving messages in digital formats are, in a sense, rebelling a little bit by buying greeting cards,” he said.

In addition, online services that create and mail customized cards are increasingly popular with younger generations that want personalized, luxury greeting cards to communicate with their friends and family, according to research from the Postal Service.

In the 19th century, Cole seized on technological advances and employed a little commercial nous to sell his 1,000 Christmas greetings for one shilling each — an old currency division worth about $4 in today’s money, according to estimates from Britain’s National Archives.

But the cards were considered a flop, and it took five years for the next Christmas card to be designed.

“They didn’t sell well,” said Simon Eliot, professor emeritus at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London and the guest curator of the exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum.

“It must have cost Cole a great deal to have them hand-painted by a recognized craftsman, so I suspect that the realized profits, if any, were negligible,” Eliot added.

But by 1877, the museum said, the idea had caught on, and more than 4.5 million Christmas cards were posted in Britain that year.

In 2001, an anonymous buyer paid nearly $30,000 at auction for one of the few remaining original Christmas cards, which were produced the same year as the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

The card industry has also been squeezed by another phenomenon: an increasing concern for the environment.

“Sending billions of bits of cardboard around the world uses so much fuel,” said Alex Furness, the co-founder of, a platform that allows users to send e-cards and donate what they would have spent on postage to a charity of their choosing in Australia, Britain, Ireland or the United States.

“Christmas is certainly the main event for us, and people still want to mark the end of the year,” Furness said. “But with an e-card, they get to completely reduce their carbon footprint.”

Other Christmas traditions have also come under the microscope, including what songs should be removed from holiday playlists and when to put up festive displays.

This month, a couple in Texas ran into trouble for erecting inflatable snowmen in their front yard in San Antonio.

Nick Simonis Jr. and his family were told by their homeowners’ association: too soon.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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