Post: “system for the conveyance of letters” is from 1660s*

*from Online Etymology Dictionary.

From the website of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London:

“The V&A has had a special interest in collecting and displaying greetings cards since it was established. Our founding director, Henry Cole, sent the first Christmas card in 1843. We now hold the national collection of cards for all occasions, with over 30,000 examples, more than half of which celebrate Christmas. Discover the origins of this very Victorian tradition.

Henry Cole (1808 – 1882) was a prominent civil-servant, educator, inventor and the first director of the V&A. In the 1840s, he was instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards. Christmas was a busy time in the Cole household and with unanswered mail piling up, a timesaving solution was needed. Henry turned to his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley to illustrate his idea.

Cole’s diary entry for 17 December 1843 records, “In the Evg Horsley came & brought his design for Christmas Cards”. Horsley’s design depicts three generations of the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving; the twofold message was of celebration and charity. Cole then commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. Horsley himself personalised his card to Cole by drawing a tiny self-portrait in the bottom right corner instead of his signature, along with the date “Xmasse, 1843”.

Cole’s Christmas card was also published and offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop. But the 1840s was a period of change, with Prince Albert introducing various German Christmas traditions to the British public, including the decorated Christmas tree. 

Cole may have been ahead of his time but the commercialisation of Christmas was on its way, prompted by developments in the publishing industry. More affordable Christmas gift-books and keepsakes were aimed at the growing middle classes, and authors responded to the trend: Charles Dickens wrote Christmas themed stories for Household Words and All the Year Round and published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the 1870s the Christmas trend was firmly established…

…What started off as a pragmatic gesture by Henry Cole has grown into a multi-million pound retail phenomenon, with around a billion Christmas cards bought in the UK each year. Cole still makes the news though; when one of his first cards was auctioned in 2013 it sold for £22,000. Every year we revive Cole’s entrepreneurial spirit by launching exclusive card ranges in the V&A Shop inspired by favourite designs from this historic collection.”

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