Printed in 1843, the hand-coloured card originally sold for one shilling and shaped the popular tradition
The world’s first printed Christmas card, an artwork created in 1843 that went on to spawn a global industry, has gone on show at the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
Designed by Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley, in the same year that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published, the hand-coloured card shows a family gathered around a table enjoying a glass of wine with a message: “A merry Christmas and a happy new year to you.”
It was sent by a son to his parents. Of the 1,000 originally printed, 21 survived and one has been lent to the museum by a book dealer in San Francisco.
Cole’s original proof is also on loan. It was given as a gift in 1865 and has a pencilled note to the recipient in the bottom right-hand corner.
Dickens and Cole worked at the same time, unknown to each other, shaping what would become popular traditions.
Museum curator Louisa Price said: “This was a really important year for the development of the modern Christmas. The Christmas card is such a big part of our Christmases today. And A Christmas Carol is such a significant story that we see every year at Christmas time.”
Cole was instrumental in setting up the Penny Post letter-delivery system in 1840 and imagining the first Christmas card, which sold for a shilling. Today, billions of Christmas cards make their way around the world.
Dickens realised industrialisation meant there was a market for books as Christmas presents. Simon Eliot, co-curator at the museum and specialist in 19th century books, said: “He was able to focus attention on Christmas and give it a sort of identity and verve which it had lacked.”
- The exhibition, Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas, runs at the novelist’s former London home, now a museum, until 19 April 2020.