Advent calendar 17: the card

In the Evg [evening] Horsley came & brought his design for Christmas Cards”.
From the diary of Henry Cole, entry for 17 December 1843.

Today’s image: the greetings card

Amongst its collections, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is proud to hold over 30,000 greetings cards. In fact, the first commercial Christmas card was sent in 1843 by the Museum’s founding director, Henry Cole. Not only did Cole send the first seasonal card, he worked with Rowland Hill to reform the British postal system with the set up of the ‘Penny Post’.  As you can see from the excerpt from his diary at the top of the page, Cole utilised the services of artist John Callcott Horsley to illustrate his novel idea – selecting the preferred design 177 years ago today.

In some ways, the card Horsley design is very recognisable to us today, reflecting several themes. In the centre, a large family are seated at the festive table, making merry. To the right, a sketched image of mother and child, presumably to represent Mary. To the left a poorer family benefit from an act of charity and giving. Along with the history of the card, the Museum presents some other charming examples here.

It has to be said, though, once the fashion for sending greetings cards took off, there were some distinctly stranger choices. A selection shown here on Bored Panda include depictions of murderous frogs; a depressed snowman; sledging chickens, a drink robin; and a ghoulishly animated Christmas pudding – amongst other images. The seasonal connection here is sometimes hard to fathom for us today, and we can conclude that not all humour has travelled across the decades.

Thoughts on ’round robin’ letters?

Whatever type of card you choose, be it humorous or one with religious significance, some will love Henry Cole’s innovation, but some may curse him for it. Greetings cards bring about a mixed response… On the one hand, it’s a lovely–and also pretty convenient–way to keep in touch, particularly at the current time, when there are family and friends that we haven’t been able to see for months. On the other, some people resent it as a burdensome task, writing stacks of cards for people they not only haven’t seen for ages, but have little motivation to do so. Then there’s always that late-arriving card from someone you didn’t send to yourself – dropping through the letterbox too late to return the greeting.

There are also mixed feelings about the ‘round robin’ letter that sometimes accompanies these greetings, i.e. those generic updates from the sender in which they describe the year’s events for themselves and their family. For some, they are a practical way to stay in touch and brought up to date on those they care about. Others see them as impersonal, and perhaps an opportunity for some lengthy bragging about family achievements.

‘I’m not sending cards this year,’ my brother said the other day. His rationale was, there are better ways to keep in touch – social media, email… Not to mention more environmentally-friendly options. And like most workplaces, in my team we have settled on donating money to charity rather than exchanging cards with colleagues. I don’t know if it’s simply my personal hopelessness about keeping in touch with people but, for one reason or another, I have noticed the number of cards we get dwindling over the past several years.

A total of 2050 of Cole and Horseley’s original cards were printed. The (initially expensive) practice took several decades to get established, but now in the UK, it’s estimated we send nearly a billion cards at this time of year.

A year or two ago, the exchange of greetings cards did appear to be dying out in a busy, digital (and hopefully waste-conscious) age. However, there are reports that more cards will be sent this year because of the pandemic and the urge to maintain connections.

I think we’re all interested to see what next year will bring…

Image thanks
Main image photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

11 thoughts on “Advent calendar 17: the card

  1. I enjoy reading your advent calendar. I have in the past made Christmas cards . This year I bought a pack 6 cards , I doubt if I will need anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much. Come to think of it, I am sending fewer too! Of dear, probably a dwindling social life.


      1. Definitely a dwindling social life , also the price of postage has got up.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I, too, am enjoying your Advent calendar. I loved browsing the images of the first Christmas cards. And I think you’re right when you talk about sending cards in bulk with yearly updates and family accomplishments. There’s sometimes a fine line between sharing and coming across as impersonal and bragging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Though I think sometimes British people can be too sensitive to the idea of ‘bragging’ and ‘getting above oneself’. Being proud of your and your family’s achievements should be okay.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating take on cards in the digital age. I still send them but every year wonder why? Then they start coming through the letter box and I appreciate them all over again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well summed up! It is lovely when they come through the letter box. Personally, I continue to dislike e-cards.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I do like having cards to put up to make the room look festive, but I do not like cards from people I never see, without any comments or news at all, what is the point!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another bugbear can be the commercial card – for some reason, the one from our milkman seemed friendly, but the corporate ones – not so much.

      Liked by 1 person

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