Before printed cards, people sent handwritten messages to each other. Then in 1843, Henry Cole, a civil servant and entrepreneur, commissioned John C. Horsley to design the above Christmas card. Sir Henry Cole (as he later became known) was looking for a way ordinary people could use the services of the newly established post office. The “Penny Post” (1840) was a new offering, and Cole wanted the public involved. So 1000 prints were made of this card and they sold for a shilling. As printing methods improved, the costs came down, and the tradition of sending cards took off.
The scene depicted above is most curious. In the center, we see a jolly gathering drinking wine. There was some discussion over the child having a sip, but evidently that was allowed. The grayed out side panels offer a stark contrast to the central celebration. There’s an effort here to stimulate Yuletide charity with feeding and clothing the underprivileged.
This was a period of time called “The Hungry 40’s.” In the midst of Queen Victoria’s England, there were the extremely wealthy aristocrats, and then there was an exploding population of poor and lower classes. The Industrial Revolution quadrupled London’s population over the past 100 years. People left the farms to seek their fortunes in the city. Overcrowded, wretched conditions awaited them. Illness, death or the loss of a job could throw a family into destitution. The “1834 Poor Law” sent those who could not pay their debts into the workhouses which were horrible, punishing, and humiliating.
It is most admirable that Sir Henry Cole used his holiday card to open the public’s consciousness to the plight of London’s poor.
Yuletide charitable giving was further reinforced by Charles Dickens. No one gave a stronger voice to the poor than Dickens did. His personal experience with poverty altered his boyhood and forever influenced his writing. Also in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote and published his Christmas Carol. There the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future transformed Scrooge into a generous Good Samaritan.
Both Horsely’s Christmas card design and Dicken’s Christmas Carol stimulated charity as a key-point of the holiday celebration.