Even before A Christmas Carol and a Christmas tree, the first Christmas card appeared in London. Sir Henry Cole, a man who had a finger in any number of pies, had helped introduce the Penny Post in 1840 and two years later he decided Christmas cards might help stir up a little business.
He commissioned a well-known artist – John Callcott Horsley – to design a card, had two thousand printed up and found that sales were brisk in spite of the price: a shilling apiece. Horsley’s first design, controversial even at the time because it showed a child drinking wine, was auctioned at Christie’s in 2001 for more than $36,000.
People collect Christmas cards – Princess Mary did and then donated her collection to the British Museum. The most collectible apparently come from the so-called golden age of printing – between the 1840s and the 1890s. An original Horsely card sells for about $12,000.
In 1987, the average household received about 30 Christmas cards, but by 2004 that number was down to 20. For collectors, the decline in the sending of Christmas cards, part of the general decline in snail mail, is probably a mixed blessing – less to collect, but what there is will be more valuable.
And speaking of the golden age of printing, the quite stunning image of Sir Henry Cole is called a woodburytype, a process invented by Walter Woodbury in 1866. A tedious process involving a gelatin relief that results in an intaglio print, it was the very best way of reproducing photographs since it preserved middle tone values. I don’t know why it is no longer used, but if you read the description you will probably leap to the conclusion that it is prohibitively labor intensive. Here, btw, is the famous Horsely: