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Museum (CC) Inspiration

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The Inspiration

Cole’s inspiration for the Christmas card was actually an attempt fix a problem he had created for himself back in 1840, when he helped establish the “Penny Post.” The public postal system in England started in 1635, but it was a very costly endeavour to send a letter by mail. This meant that letters were only sent by the rich, for business, or when absolutely necessary. It also meant that when you received a letter it was customary to respond and impolite not to. The Penny Post allowed anyone to send a letter anywhere in England by attaching a stamp that only cost a penny. It became more affordable to send letters and so more people did. 

Christmas Card 1905 C
The "Penny Black," the first adhesive postage stamp released in England on 1 May 1840 (Public Domain Image)

As an educator and patron of the arts who travelled in elite social circles, Cole had many friends. After the creation of the Penny Post, Cole began to get more and more letters, especially at the end of the year when it was traditional to send correspondence.

German New Year Card 1500 C
Henry Cole by Lock & Whitfield, 1880 C (Public Domain Image)

Another important event that took place in 1840 which led to the creation of the Christmas card was the royal wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At the start of the 19th century, Christmas was recognized in England but was hardly celebrated — many businesses didn’t even give employees December 25th off. But when Albert married Victoria, he brought his German family’s Christmas traditions to the British Royal Family. Within a few years these new traditions, which were embraced by Queen Victoria, began to filter down to the masses. 

Queen Victoria Christmas Tree
Print from Illustrated London News in December 1848 of Queen Victoria and Family around the Christmas Tree (Public Domain Image)

This change in attitude and norms can be seen only three years later in Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge reluctantly gives Bob Cratchit Christmas day off.

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol Title page
First Edition of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol," 1843 (Public Domain Image)

By 1843 Henry Cole had too many letters to respond to as a result of his extensive list of friends, coupled with the ability to send a letter by mail for only a penny. The situation was exacerbated at the end of the year, with the rise in popularity of Christmas as a holiday adding to the tradition of sending New Year’s letters. This led Cole to come up with the idea of sending a generic card to recognize Christmas and the New Year instead of a letter, saving him much needed time. 



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