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The First Commercially Printed Christmas Card Scandalized Victorian England

Two rare copies of the 1843 greeting card, which depicts a child sipping from a glass of wine, are now up for auction

The Temperance Society objected to the card's inclusion of a child sipping wine. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

This holiday season, two lucky individuals could find copies of the first commercially printed Christmas card under their trees.

First published in 1843, the festive family scene’s inclusion of a child sipping wine caused quite a stir when it was first unveiled. Though the depiction is admittedly tame by contemporary standards, the Temperance Society, a group that advocated for the reduction or prohibition of alcohol consumption, viewed it as a promotion for underage drinking.

“They were quite distressed that in this scandalous picture they had children toasting with a glass of wine along with the adults,” Justin Schiller—founder and president of Battledore, a Kingston, New York-based dealer in antiquarian book—tells the Associated Press’ William J. Kole. “They had a campaign to censor and suppress it.”

Now, reports the AP, two rare printings of the early greeting card are up for sale through Christie’s London and a consortium managed by Boston-based rare books and manuscripts dealer Marvin Getman.

Per the Christie’s listing, the card is one of 292 lots included in the auction house’s “Valuable Books and Manuscripts” sale. The print shows a family celebrating the holidays by dining on a large feast and enjoying goblets of crimson-colored wine. Images of people performing charitable acts flank the central image, and an inscription written on an unfurled banner reads, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

The card’s message itself is addressed to “My very dear Father & Mother” from “Their loving son, Joe.”

Christie’s expects the hand-colored lithograph and an accompanying signed proof to sell for around $6,720 to $10,752. Getman, meanwhile, lists its card—likely a salesperson’s sample—at $25,000. (Fewer than 30 of the original 1,000 copies survive today.)

The First Christmas Card
Proof version of the first Christmas card (Christie's Images Ltd. 2020)

Bidding for the Christie’s card will take place in London on December 9. Other auction highlights include a signed, first edition copy of a Lewis Carroll book and a 1634 copy of the King James Bible. Per the AP, Getman’s sale, which began online today, also features a bleak, handwritten Emily Dickinson poem titled “Santa Claus.”

According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the cultural institution’s founding director, Sir Henry Cole, came up with the idea for commercial Christmas cards while searching for an efficient way to return friends and relatives’ holiday greetings.

“In Victorian England, it was considered impolite not to answer mail,” Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, told Smithsonian magazine’s John Hanc in 2015. “He had to figure out a way to respond to all of these people.”

In an attempt to streamline his correspondence, Cole—also a prominent civil servant and educator—decided to start mass-producing Christmas cards. He asked artist John Calcott Horsley to illustrate the design and employed a printer. Though Cole attempted to sell the cards for the then-expensive price of one shilling a piece, he was largely unsuccessful, and outsiders deemed the venture “a commercial flop,” per the V&A.

Another artist, William Maw Egley, created the second Christmas card in 1848, and the holiday tradition soon gained considerable traction. As the V&A notes, Victorian England experienced a “heyday for Christmas cards” between 1860 and 1890; across the pond, according to Smithsonian, “more artistic, subtle” cards took America by storm beginning in 1875.

Today, the greeting card industry today continues to thrive, with creators adapting content to appeal to modern consumers.

“[S]maller publishers are bringing in a lot of new ideas,” Peter Doherty—executive director of the Greeting Card Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group represents card publishers—told Smithsonian in 2015. “You have elaborate pop-up cards, video cards, audio cards, cards segmented to various audiences.”

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