December 17, 1843 A Christmas Card

Henry was astounded to see the volume of personal mail, particularly around the Christmas season. But there was a problem. Failure to reply to a handwritten letter was considered impolite, but this was more than he could handle.

With Christmas fast approaching, families all over are decorating trees, hanging lights and wrapping gifts. Short days from now children will scan the skies for a glimpse of Santa and his sleigh full of toys.

Americans alone are expected to mail some 1.6 Billion Christmas cards this year, but cards weren’t always so popular. There was a time in fact, when there were none at all. So let’s grab a hot chocolate & go back for a little fun history. To 1843 and the guy responsible, for the first Christmas card.

In 1812 England, mailing a letter was complicated. One sheet of paper mailed from London to Edinburgh cost 1 shilling, 1 penny. Two pages were twice that and so on. Simple you say and fair enough, but that was pricey. Adding to the complication, postage changed based on distance traveled. Not only that but the cost might be paid by the sender, or the recipient. People would write two sets of letters on one sheet to save money, two or more “crossed letters” written perpendicularly, to save money. Something had to change.

Crossed letter from Caroline Weston to Deborah Weston; Friday, March 3, 1837

Discussions of a uniform postage based on weight began as early as 1837. Sir Rowland Hill argued in favor of a one penny rate, asserting that vastly higher mail volume resulting would more than offset offset any reduction in revenues.

With the ultimate goal of a single penny’s postage per half-ounce letter, the first change occurred on December 5, 1839. Postage could be paid by sender or recipient without penalty, at a standardized rate of four pennies. Letters were hand stamped (usually) in black if paid by the sender, or red if paid by the recipient. The age of the four penny post, had come.

The new system proved overwhelmingly popular. The penny post came to be on January 10, 1840.

The first adhesive postage stamp in history came to be on May 1. The envy of philatelists from that day to this day, the “Penny Black” featured the profile of Queen Victoria and cost 240 pence per sheet of 240, a shilling per row and – you guessed it – a penny apiece.

Fun fact: the image used was one of Queen Victoria, at age 15. The stamp remained in use throughout the Victorian age, Britain’s longest reigning monarch save only, for Queen Elizabeth II.

Rowland hill had argued that, if mailing a letter was cheaper, then more people would do it. He was right. So it is the one-time home of Sir Rowland Hill, K.C.B bears a Blue plaque, in recognition.

Sir Henry Cole now comes into this story, as the man who founded the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and a man instrumental in assisting Rowland Hill’s efforts to reform the British postal system.

Sir Henry was astounded to see the volume of personal mail, particularly around the Christmas season. But there was a problem. Failure to reply to a handwritten letter was considered impolite, but this was more than he could handle.

Cole had an idea. An easily reproduced Christmas message, one that could be easily personalized. He asked artist friend John Callcott Horsley to come up with an idea.

Horsley came back with a triptych (a three panel illustration). The center panel depicted three generations of the Cole family in Christmas celebration. The side two showed charitable acts on behalf of the poor, one dispensing food and the other, clothing. The banner beneath it all read “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.

Today, news aggregator Globalnewswire.com forecasts global greeting card sales to reach $13.4 Billion US with the Christmas segment accounting for a third. All of it started on this day in 1843 when Henry Cole, founder of London’s V&A Museum, commissioned printing of the 1st Christmas card.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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