Christmas Cards – The History of this Victorian Tradition

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1843 – Sir Henry Cole commissioned and sent the world's first commercial Christmas card in England in 1843. He approached an artist friend, John Callcott Horsely, to create the illustration and the greeting “A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year To You”
1843 – Sir Henry Cole commissioned and sent the world’s first commercial Christmas card in England in 1843. He approached an artist friend, John Callcott Horsely, to create the illustration and the greeting “A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year To You” (Library of Birmingham, Early and Fine Printing Collection, Box 816469)

The world’s first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a British public servant, educator, patron of the arts and first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He had many friends who wrote him letters, but he had little time to respond to each one. With the letters piling up, he came up with a time-saving idea and approached an artist friend, John Callcott Horsely, to create the illustration.

The First Christmas Card

The artwork consisted of three panels, with the hand-coloured central panel depicting three generations of the Cole family gathered around a table and raising a toast to the holiday. The side panels show images of people feeding and clothing those in need. There was the greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You” and the words “TO:___” and “FROM:___” so Sir Cole could personalize each one. He had a printer create 1,000 copies on cardstock.

Sir Cole also owned an art shop in London and offered the Christmas card for sale for one shilling a piece, which would be about £4 today. The image on the card sparked much controversy, as people felt it encouraged drinking.

The Uniform Penny Post

It should be noted that in the 1830s and early 1840s, Sir Henry Cole played a key role in reforming the British postal system, helping establish the Uniform Penny Post, making it more affordable and encouraging people to send letters and seasonal greetings.

Circa 1880 – Four yowling cats on a snowy roof and a man peering out the window with the greeting "Silvery Accents, Whispering Low... A Happy, Happy Christmastide”
Circa 1880 – Four yowling cats on a snowy roof and a man peering out the window with the greeting “Silvery Accents, Whispering Low… A Happy, Happy Christmastide” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0010)

Strange & Surprising Victorian Christmas Cards

As the idea of Christmas cards gradually caught on, other artists and printers began creating their own versions. In the Victorian era, seasonal greetings were quite different from what we see today. While modern greetings typically feature winter, holiday or religious scenes, those from the past could be whimsical, odd and even morbid. For example, some cards had illustrations that included a clown drinking ale, dead birds, killer frogs, yowling cats, dancing insects, and the bizarre list goes on.

Victorians, especially women and children, made a hobby of collecting, displaying and exchanging Christmas cards. By the 1870s, the tradition of sending Christmas cards was firmly in place in Britain and had spread to Canada and the United States.

The Tradition Today

Even with increased digital communication, sending Christmas cards to family and friends is still a cherished holiday tradition. Below is mainly a mix of Victorian and Edwardian-era Christmas cards, including ones from Toronto.

Christmas Card Photos

1843 – Sir Henry Cole commissioned and sent the world's first commercial Christmas card in England in 1843. He approached an artist friend, John Callcott Horsely, to create the illustration and the greeting “A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year To You”
1843 – Sir Henry Cole commissioned and sent the world’s first commercial Christmas card in England in 1843. He approached an artist friend, John Callcott Horsely, to create the illustration and the greeting “A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year To You” (Library of Birmingham, Early and Fine Printing Collection, Box 816469)
Circa 1870 – “Wintry but Seasonable. A Merrie Xmas To You All”
Circa 1870 – “Wintry but Seasonable. A Merrie Xmas To You All” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0020)
Circa 1873 – “Poaching On A Gentleman's Preserves - A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year”
Circa 1873 – “Poaching On A Gentleman’s Preserves – A Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0022)
Circa 1875 - "Father Christmas, His Procession - Christmas Comes But Once A Year - And When It Comes It Brings Good Cheer"
Circa 1875 – “Father Christmas, His Procession – Christmas Comes But Once A Year – And When It Comes It Brings Good Cheer” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0033)
Circa 1880 – Four yowling cats on a snowy roof and a man peering out the window with the greeting "Silvery Accents, Whispering Low... A Happy, Happy Christmastide!”
Circa 1880 – Four yowling cats on a snowy roof and a man peering out the window with the greeting “Silvery Accents, Whispering Low… A Happy, Happy Christmastide!” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0010)
Circa 1880 – “A Merry Christmas”
Circa 1880 – “A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0026)
Circa 1880 – “A Happy Christmas”
Circa 1880 – “A Happy Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0018)
Circa 1880 - "a merry Xmas"
Circa 1880 – “a merry Xmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0039)
Circa 1880 – “Wishing You a Merry Christmas”
Circa 1880 – “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0015)
Between 1880 and 1895 – “Not Mirth Alone, But Happiness Be Thine”
Between 1880 and 1895 – “Not Mirth Alone, But Happiness Be Thine” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0030)
1885/86 – “Toronto P.O. Employee's Annual Greeting To Their Friends Everywhere - Compliments Of The Season”
1885/86 – “Toronto P.O. Employee’s Annual Greeting To Their Friends Everywhere – Compliments Of The Season” (Toronto Public Library 1885TORONTOPOVS)
Circa 1885 – Four frogs with boots and umbrellas with the greeting "Every good wish for your Christmas”
Circa 1885 – Four frogs with boots and umbrellas with the greeting “Every good wish for your Christmas” (Library of Birmingham, Francis Parker Scrapbook, Parker Collection, Early and Fine Printing Collection, Item 698218)
Circa 1885 – “May Good Luck Be In Store For You When Least Expected, Like Cinderella - Christmas Greeting”
Circa 1885 – “May Good Luck Be In Store For You When Least Expected, Like Cinderella – Christmas Greeting” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0002)
Circa 1886 – “A Merry Christmas to You & Yours - Compliments of J. Blizard & Co. Toys And Games 49 King St W"
Circa 1886 – “A Merry Christmas to You & Yours – Compliments of J. Blizard & Co. Toys And Games 49 King St W” (Toronto Public Library 1886-BLIZARD-2-VS)
Circa 1886 – “A right Merry Christmas - Compliments of J. Blizard & Co. Toys And Games 49 King St W"
Circa 1886 – “A right Merry Christmas – Compliments of J. Blizard & Co. Toys And Games 49 King St W” (Toronto Public Library 1886-BLIZARD-1-VS)
Circa 1888 – “I Want Haag's Candies for Christmas - They Are Pure, They Won't Make Me Sick - Compliments of the Season H. HAAG, Baker and Confection, - 714 Yonge Street"
Circa 1888 – “I Want Haag’s Candies for Christmas – They Are Pure, They Won’t Make Me Sick – Compliments of the Season H. HAAG, Baker and Confection, – 714 Yonge Street” (Toronto Public Library 1888-HAAG-VS)
Circa 1880/90 – "The dairyman who keeps the cow with tail made of cast metal, makes milk of chalk - and this is how clown chalks him up for cattle”
Circa 1880/90 – “The dairyman who keeps the cow with tail made of cast metal, makes milk of chalk – and this is how clown chalks him up for cattle” (Library of Birmingham, Early and Fine Printing Collection, Box 816469)
Circa 1890 – “A Peaceful and happy Christmas”
Circa 1890 – “A Peaceful and happy Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0021)
Circa 1890 – “Never mind Chimmie, temorrer yer sells Worlds and yer don't get stuck, see! - The Carrier Boy of the Toronto World wishes you A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”
Circa 1890 – “Never mind Chimmie, temorrer yer sells Worlds and yer don’t get stuck, see! – The Carrier Boy of the Toronto World wishes you A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (Toronto Public Library CA-1890-CHIMMIE-SB)
Circa 1895 – “A Merry Christmas - Two Early Birds - Mail & Empire”
Circa 1895 – “A Merry Christmas – Two Early Birds – Mail & Empire” (Toronto Public Library CA-1895-MERRY-VS)
Circa 1900 – “If E’er You Make A Lucky Hit - Be Sure You Make The Best Of It
A Happy New Year”
Circa 1900 – “If E’er You Make A Lucky Hit – Be Sure You Make The Best Of It A Happy New Year” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0005)
Circa 1900 – “Compliments of the Season”
Circa 1900 – “Compliments of the Season” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-186)
Circa 1900 – “Wishing You A Very Happy New Year”
Circa 1900 – “Wishing You A Very Happy New Year” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0027)
Circa 1900 - "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year"
Circa 1900 – “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0016)
Circa 1900 – “Happy May Thy Christmas Be”
Circa 1900 – “Happy May Thy Christmas Be” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0003)
Circa 1904 – “Ontario Parliament Buildings, Toronto, Canada - With the Season’s Greeting and Best Wishes for the New Year”
Circa 1904 – “Ontario Parliament Buildings, Toronto, Canada – With the Season’s Greeting and Best Wishes for the New Year” (Toronto Public Library PC_4722)
Circa 1905 - Merry Christmas
Circa 1905 – Merry Christmas (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-222)
Circa 1905 – ‘A Merry Xmas”
Circa 1905 – ‘A Merry Xmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-195)
1907 – “Best Wishes for a happy Christmas”
1907 – “Best Wishes for a happy Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-265)
Circa 1907 – “Xmas - To Wish You Many Happy Days”
Circa 1907 – “Xmas – To Wish You Many Happy Days” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-220)
Circa 1907 – “I must put something very nice into this; it belongs to Willie Bussell”
Circa 1907 – “I must put something very nice into this; it belongs to Willie Bussell” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-224)
Circa 1908 – “Don’t you remember when you felt like this on Christmas morning?”
Circa 1908 – “Don’t you remember when you felt like this on Christmas morning?” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-194)
Circa 1909 - "Toronto Winter Scenes - A Merry Christmas"
Circa 1909 – “Toronto Winter Scenes – A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library PC-5074)
Circa 1909 - "Xmas"
Circa 1909 – “Xmas” (Toronto Public Library PC-667)
Circa 1909 - "Christmas Greetings"
Circa 1909 – “Christmas Greetings” (Toronto Public Library PC-227)
Circa 1909 – “Christmas Greetings”
Circa 1909 – “Christmas Greetings” (Toronto Public Library PC_4288)
Circa 1909 - "A Merry Christmas"
Circa 1909 – “A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-190)
Circa 1909 - "Good Christmas Wishes - You can't spoil Christmas"
Circa 1909 – “Good Christmas Wishes – You can’t spoil Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-232)
Circa 1910 - "To wish you a happy Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “To wish you a happy Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-666)
Circa 1910 - "Christmas Greetings"
Circa 1910 – “Christmas Greetings” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-228)
Circa 1910 - "A Merry Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-371)
Circa 1910 – Christmas card showing Punch and Judy with the baby in the air at the Royal Theatre
Circa 1910 – Christmas card showing Punch and Judy with the baby in the air at the Royal Theatre (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0041)
Circa 1910 - Christmas pudding card with the greeting "Christmas comes and Christmas goes, May it leave us free from woes - A Little Pudding - With best wishes for a happy Christmas
Circa 1910 – Christmas pudding card with the greeting “Christmas comes and Christmas goes, May it leave us free from woes – A Little Pudding – With best wishes for a happy Christmas (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-202)
Circa 1910 - "Best Christmas Wishes"
Circa 1910 – “Best Christmas Wishes” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-196)
Circa 1910 – “May joy and happiness be yours at Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “May joy and happiness be yours at Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-669)
Circa 1910 – "A Merry Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-221)
Circa 1910 – "Wishing You a Glad New Year"
Circa 1910 – “Wishing You a Glad New Year” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-180)
Circa 1910 – “I hope you are on the borderland of keen anticipation, and that Christmas Day will bring you the joys of realization - Merry Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “I hope you are on the borderland of keen anticipation, and that Christmas Day will bring you the joys of realization – Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0008)
Circa 1910 – "Merry Christmas - May you slip joyously over every difficulty of life"
Circa 1910 – “Merry Christmas – May you slip joyously over every difficulty of life” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-230)
Circa 1910 – "All Xmas Joys Be Thine"
Circa 1910 – “All Xmas Joys Be Thine” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-219)
 Circa 1910 – "A Joyful Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “A Joyful Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-193)
Circa 1910 – "We Shall Not Be At Home This Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “We Shall Not Be At Home This Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-188)
Circa 1910 – "Merry Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-199)
Circa 1910 – "To Wish You A Bright And Happy Christmas - Look pleasant please and watch me closely, now hold the post-card to the light, you’ll find my photo has developed, and Father Christmas comes in sight”
Circa 1910 – “To Wish You A Bright And Happy Christmas – Look pleasant please and watch me closely, now hold the post-card to the light, you’ll find my photo has developed, and Father Christmas comes in sight” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-182)
Circa 1910 – "A Happy Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “A Happy Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-233)
Circa 1910 – "Gertrude - With loving Christmas Wishes - Truth – Freedom – Virtue – these, dear child, have power, if rightly cherish’d, to uphold, sustain, and bless thy spirit, in its darkest hour!"
Circa 1910 – “Gertrude – With loving Christmas Wishes – Truth – Freedom – Virtue – these, dear child, have power, if rightly cherish’d, to uphold, sustain, and bless thy spirit, in its darkest hour!” (Toronto Public Library OSB-CARDS-0009)
Circa 1910 – "A Merry Christmas Wish"
Circa 1910 – “A Merry Christmas Wish” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-670)
Circa 1910 – "Last Instructions To Santa Claus"
Circa 1910 – “Last Instructions To Santa Claus” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-191)
Circa 1910 – "A Merry Christmas"
Circa 1910 – “A Merry Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-672)
Circa 1911 – "Merry Christmas and Good Morning"
Circa 1911 – “Merry Christmas and Good Morning” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-229)
1912-1913 – "Lieut-Col. Wellington Wallace 
Commanding 14th Infantry Brigade and staff extends to you 
All the Compliments of the Season and A Happy New Year 
120 Spadina Road Toronto"
1912-1913 – “Lieut-Col. Wellington Wallace
Commanding 14th Infantry Brigade and staff extends to you
All the Compliments of the Season and A Happy New Year
120 Spadina Road Toronto” (Toronto Public Library 1912-CARD-VS)
Circa 1913 – "A Christmas Greeting"
Circa 1913 – “A Christmas Greeting” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-226)
Circa 1913 – "for Your Christmas - May the Joys of Christmastide - Cheer and Happiness provide"
Circa 1913 – “for Your Christmas – May the Joys of Christmastide – Cheer and Happiness provide” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-200)
Circa 1914 – “Christmas Greeting - Now Christmas comes, I hope you’ll find Your Xmas gifts a bumper crop; May Santa Claus to you be kind, And fill your stocking to the top"
Circa 1914 – “Christmas Greeting – Now Christmas comes, I hope you’ll find Your Xmas gifts a bumper crop; May Santa Claus to you be kind, And fill your stocking to the top” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-669)
Circa 1915 – “St. Nick’s prowling around in the snow, While you're smuggling comfy and all aglow, He’s headed straight for your own house, And in he’ll steal as quiet as a mouse. Christmas”
Circa 1915 – “St. Nick’s prowling around in the snow, While you’re smuggling comfy and all aglow, He’s headed straight for your own house, And in he’ll steal as quiet as a mouse. Christmas” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-225)
Circa 1915 – "A Merry Xmas 1915. Both Doing Their Bit!" (
Circa 1915 – “A Merry Xmas 1915. Both Doing Their Bit!” (Toronto Public Library 1915-CHRISTMAS-VS)
Circa 1915 – "A Christmas greeting - I've given Santa Claus an order, For a large amount of glee, To be delivered to you, With a lot of love from me”
Circa 1915 – “A Christmas greeting – I’ve given Santa Claus an order, For a large amount of glee, To be delivered to you, With a lot of love from me” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-185)
Circa 1916 – "No. 2, Canadian General Hospital, Christmas 1916"
Circa 1916 – “No. 2, Canadian General Hospital, Christmas 1916” (Toronto Public Library 1916-CHRISTMAS-VS)
1917 – "Greetings From The Globe Carrier 1917 - Canada's National Newspaper"
1917 – “Greetings From The Globe Carrier 1917 – Canada’s National Newspaper” (Toronto Public Library 1917-GLOBE-CHRISTMAS-VS)
1919 – "Toronto - With all good wishes for Christmas"
1919 – “Toronto – With all good wishes for Christmas” (Toronto Public Library CHRISTMAS-VS)
1920 – “Christmas - A Wish Sincere – The Day Is Here - My Chance Has Come At Last; My Wish Is Clear, Have Much Good Cheer; Be Sorry When It’s Past"
1920 – “Christmas – A Wish Sincere – The Day Is Here – My Chance Has Come At Last; My Wish Is Clear, Have Much Good Cheer; Be Sorry When It’s Past” (Toronto Public Library ARTS-PC-201)
December 13, 1924 – “A Merry Christmas - This greeting’s short, as you can see; But long enough to say, I wish you every Happiness Upon This Christmas Day - 208 Geoffrey St Toronto - John H. Boyd"
December 13, 1924 – “A Merry Christmas – This greeting’s short, as you can see; But long enough to say, I wish you every Happiness Upon This Christmas Day – 208 Geoffrey St Toronto – John H. Boyd” (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 4264)
1931 – "Christmas Cards For Hand Colouring - Tally Ho! Art Shops 331 Bay Street, Room 206, Toronto Ontario"
1931 – “Christmas Cards For Hand Colouring – Tally Ho! Art Shops 331 Bay Street, Room 206, Toronto Ontario” (Toronto Public Library 31385043912128D)
December 8, 1925 – “Good health and comfort Friends kindly and true, Are the Christmas Wishes That this bears to you”
December 8, 1925 – “Good health and comfort Friends kindly and true, Are the Christmas Wishes That this bears to you” (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6782)
December 13, 1925 – “May you have a real old Fashioned Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”
December 13, 1925 – “May you have a real old Fashioned Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6800)
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