Who Invented the Christmas Card?

The history of sending Christmas cards dates back to the early 17th century, when a prominent German physician, Michael Maier, sent festive greetings to King James I of England.

The Rendsburg-born physician and royal counsellor to the Archduke of Austria, Rudolf II, was visiting England in December 1611 when he sent the Christmas card to King James and his son, the Prince of Wales, Henry Frederick.

Merry Christmas Card

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Hand-drawn card

Unlike today’s printed Christmas cards, Maier’s greeting was a hand-written manuscript, containing a drawing of a rose believed to be based on Rosicrucian imagery. A rose on a cross is the symbol of the worldwide spiritual brotherhood, based on wisdom and culture – handed down from ancient times.

The Christmas card contained the text: “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the birthday of the Lord. In most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612.”

It is now in the National Archives of Scotland, but not on public view, due to its frailty. Much of the text adorning the rose is almost invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen by ultra-violet light.

First commercial Christmas card

Despite the royal connection in 1611, Christmas cards didn’t take off commercially until two centuries later. The tradition of major celebrations for Christmas grew rapidly in the 1800s, largely due to the public wishing to emulate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s own lavish celebrations.

In 1843, senior civil servant Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy businessman, wished to send a greetings card to friends and business colleagues to wish them a Merry Christmas. He commissioned the English artist John Callcott Horsley to design the card. Horsley drew a picture of a festive scene depicting a group of people eating Christmas dinner around the dining table, with a seasonal greeting.

Cole, co-creator of the Public Records Office, is known as the man who invented the commercial Christmas card. He also played a key role in introducing the Penny Post postal system, allowing ordinary mail to be sent for one penny UK-wide.

Three years after first sending Christmas cards to friends, he began selling them commercially, printing off an initial run of 1,000 cards with the same picture in 1846. The first year, the cards were sold exclusively at the Bond Street luxury retail store, Felix Summerly’s Treasure House.

However, ordinary people couldn’t afford to shop there, as the cards cost one shilling each – taking inflation into account, this equates to around £10 per card in today’s money. As a result, children, in particular started to make their own Christmas cards every year. This tradition has continued ever since and making Christmas cards is something youngsters enjoy doing in school as a festive activity.


Colour printing technology

During the late 19th century (the age of industrialisation across Europe), colour printing technology improved and became more widely available. This led to the price of commercial Christmas cards dropping significantly and the industry started to take off for the general public, rather than just the wealthy.

From the initial print run of 1,000 Christmas cards in 1846, they had become a big business just four decades later. An estimated 11.5 million Christmas cards were sent through the post in 1880 as the widescale commercialisation of Christmas was truly underway. Today, the Royal Mail estimates one billion Christmas cards are sent every year in the UK. The traditional picture of a robin on a Christmas card also began in the 19th century.

The robin has long been associated with Christmas. Legend has it that when Jesus was lying in his manger in the stable in Bethlehem, a brave brown robin feared the blazing log fire would scorch the Lord’s face.

The bird placed himself between the fire and the baby’s face to protect him. It was said the robin’s feathers were scorched by the intense heat and he earned his famous red colouring as a tribute to his bravery.

Robins first became a staple of Christmas card designs in the 1880s. In those days, postmen wore bright red Royal Mail uniforms and were nicknamed “robins”. Every Christmas, people would eagerly await the arrival of the local “robin” or postman, laden down with greetings cards.

Today, when you need to send a lot of mail out to clients, Selectabase can help with our Create and Post service. Ideal for marketing purposes, it enables businesses to achieve effective reach at minimum cost, saving you time and money.

To find out more about our range of printing and posting services to help your business run smoothly, contact us. We are always happy to help and advise.

The Selectabase team would like you wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years!