Posts Tagged ‘Christmas Cards’

A guest post by LH Member Martin Thompson.

Sir Henry Cole (1808 – 1882), Founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Address in Hampstead: 3 Elm Row (1879 – 1880)

xmas card cole

The first commercially produced Christmas card, 1843.

Life and Times
henry coleSir Henry Cole was instrumental in the development of the Victoria and Albert Museum of which he was the first director. He introduced the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843 and played a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post. He is sometimes credited with the design of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black.

He was born in Bath on 15 July, 1808 into a middle-class family, the son of Henry Robert Cole and his wife Leticia and educated at Christ’s Hospital in London. With little chance of going to university he took a job, aged 15, as a clerk in the Public Record Office. Whilst working there he met and married Marian Fairman Bond on 28th December, 1833 with whom he had nine children. Cole lost his job there in 1835. However, his criticisms of the Commission’s activities enabled him to win back his lost post and led to the eventual establishment of a new Public Record Office, of which Cole was appointed an Assistant Keeper. From there he was recruited by Rowland Hill to work as an assistant between 1837 and 1840 and with whom he helped introduce the penny post.

In 1850 he secured the backing of Queen Victoria to establish, under the Presidency of Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations which was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. This was enormously popular and a great financial success. He was also instrumental in the decision that the £186,000 surplus from the Great Exhibition would be used for improving science and art education in the United Kingdom. Land was purchased in the South Kensington area and developed as the centre for a number of educational and cultural institutions eventually becoming the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1843 Cole commissioned John Callcott Horsley to design a greeting card that he could send to all his friends as, at the time, it was the custom to laboriously handwrite greeting cards individually. It showed a happy family enjoying the holiday with side panels depicting the charitable side of Christmas and the Christmas card was born. One of these first Christmas cards which he had sent to his grandmother, sold at auction for £22,500.

Cole eventually retired with a knighthood bestowed upon him by Queen Victoria in 1875 and sought a home in Hampstead which he found in Elm Row. It is not exactly a busy thoroughfare, just a tiny turning off Heath Street. Yet it has a special significance at Christmas that few will appreciate – unless they take a look at the black plaque on the wall of 3 Elm Row which states: Sir Henry Cole lived here 1879-1880. He originated the custom of sending Christmas Cards and was largely responsible for the founding of the Kensington Museum. He was also a great postal reformer. Whilst living in Hampstead, the Heath became one of his new passions. He also built up a group of local friends in the area amongst them Gerard Manley Hopkins and George du Maurier. Unfortunately, Hampstead did not suit him. Cole himself wrote in his diary “the 400 feet ascent to Hampstead was a great obstacle.” As a result, he left Hampstead and moved to South Kensington, in 1880.

Cole had a known heart condition, but did not slow down as he aged. At the end of 1881, he started writing his memoir highlighting his half century of public service. On Monday, April 17, 1882 Cole sat for a portrait with the famous painter Whistler. That night his condition worsened, and he died in his home the following evening at the age of 74. He was buried in Brompton cemetery.

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Victorian London played a massive part in how we celebrate Christmas today. William Sandys published Christmas carols and Christmas plays; Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol; Sir Henry Cole invented Christmas cards; Thomas J Smith invented the Christmas cracker; and Prince Albert encouraged us all to put Christmas trees in our homes, like good Germans.

Throughout the Middle Ages a midwinter festival associated with Christmas was celebrated with feasting, dancing, games, boozing and general merriment. Things ran into difficulties from the Reformation, particularly with Puritan elements, whereby many Protestants saw Christmas as being either a pagan or Popish celebration. Christmas was actually banned by a Puritan-dominated parliament in 1647. Protests and riots followed, notably in Canterbury.

Matters improved throughout the Georgian period, but by the early 19th Century, Christmas as a celebration was once again in decline.

 Then, in 1833, London solicitor and antiquarian William Sandys published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, comprising 80 carols which included classics such as The First Noel and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. He published an updated version, called Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music, in 1852. In addition, Sandys wrote several Christmas plays and other Christmas-related works.

Charles Dickens. As we all know, he wrote A Christmas Carol, which was published on 19 December 1843. The effect of the book on the revival of Christmas cannot be underestimated.  Apart from adding to the language of Christmas, with scrooge, bah, humbug and all the rest of it, the book revived the Christmas tenets of family, good cheer, feasting, gift-giving and charity. The phrase Merry Christmas was pretty much invented by Dickens.

Christmas cards were first produced in London by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, the same year as A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry was instrumental in introducing the penny post a few years previously, so we can see where the shrewd fellow was going with this one. Themes on early cards were celebratory rather than religious.

Christmas crackers were invented by a sweet manufacturer called Thomas J Smith of London in 1847. Whereas we now have a toy inside the cracker, Smith originally used one of his sweets. He came up with the idea of the message inside and the explosion on pulling the cracker.

The Christmas tree is a German innovation which was introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte, consort of George III. Prince Albert further promoted the use of Christmas trees, since when they became a fixture in the British home. The spruce Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is a thank-you gift to the people of London from the people of Oslo for British assistance in defeating Germany in WWII. The tradition began in 1947. The plaque reads:

This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.
Christmas Day  was always a customary as opposed to a statutory holiday having the same rest-day status of Sundays. It only reached the statute books under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971. Boxing Day was established as a public holiday a full century earlier under the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 and is a peculiarly British tradition, only really celebrated in Britain and Commonwealth countries.
I may add to this. Happy to include suggestions.    

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