Before there were printed greeting cards, people sent handwritten messages to each other. In 1843, Henry Cole, a British 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’s involvement. A thousand prints were made of this card and they sold for a shilling, which was pricey at the time. As printing methods improved, the costs came down, and the tradition of sending cards took off.
The scene depicted above is very curious. In the center, we see a jolly gathering of people drinking wine. Originally, there was some discussion over the child having a sip, but evidently that was allowed. The grayed out side panels on either side offer a stark contrast to the central celebration. The theme of charitable giving frames the party in an effort to stimulate Yuletide charity with feeding and clothing the underprivileged.
This was a period of time in British history 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 the poor and lower classes. The Industrial Revolution quadrupled London’s population over the past 100 years. People had left the farms to seek their fortunes in the city. Overcrowded, wretched conditions awaited them in the industrial cities. Illness, death or the loss of a job could throw a whole family into destitution. The “1834 Poor Law” sent those who could not pay their debts into the workhouses which were horrible, punishing, and humiliating places.
With that societal-economic backdrop, it is 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. It was also in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote and published his Christmas Carol. In the story the stark contrast between the struggling poor and the stingy upper classes is clearly illustrated. Dickens offers a moral lesson through the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future so Scrooge is miraculously redeemed and transformed into a generous Good Samaritan.
Together, Horsley’s Christmas card and Dicken’s Christmas Carol made a statement putting charity into the foreground as a key-element of the holiday season, which continues even to this day.