World's oldest Christmas card turns 170 at British Postal Museum and Archive

By Culture24 Reporter | 09 December 2013

The humble Christmas card turns 170 this year. The British Postal Museum and Archive has the first example in its collection

A Victorian Christmas Card showing people carousing at a table
The Henry Cole Christmas Card (1843)© BPMA
We may have seen a revolution in digital communication in recent years, but at Christmas a distinctively Victorian mode of communication is still holding its own.

The tradition of sending a Christmas card has its genesis in 1843 when Henry Cole, the civil servant responsible for the introduction of the world's first postage stamp, the Penny Black, commissioned a printed card for conveying Christmas greetings to his friends.

Described at the time by the Athenaeum paper as “A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends”, the Christmas card was seen as a curiosity when it first became available to the public in 1843 – the same year that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol.

At sixpence each, the hand coloured card was also a luxury item unaffordable to many. Cole, who was also the founding director of the V&A, had 1,000 of them printed, using a number of them personally before selling the rest.

The card is now an important part of the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA), which is the leading resource for all aspects of British postal history.

Anna Flood, Archivist at the Archive and resident expert on Christmas cards, says the card remains an "instantly recognisable" part of annual festivities around the world.

"But this hasn’t always been the case," she clarifies.

"Henry Cole’s card is an important part of our national heritage, and from it was born a tradition that many of us still undertake.”

The Archive is promising to display the card when they open a new world-class home for its collections and the Royal Mail Archive in Central London.

A fund-raising campaign is currently underway to raise £22 million towards the new museum, which is scheduled to open in 2016.

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