Controversial First Christmas Card Is Now Up for Grabs

People making merry on the 1843 card irked Victorian-era teetotalers
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 4, 2020 8:29 AM CST
Controversial First Christmas Card Is Now Up for Grabs
This 2017 photo shows the first commercially produced Christmas card, dated December 1843. The hand-colored card was designed in England by John Callcott Horsley.   (Dennis M V David/Battledore Ltd. via AP)

The first commercially printed Christmas card is up for sale—a merry Victorian-era scene that scandalized some when it first appeared in 1843. The card, being sold online starting Friday through a consortium run by Marvin Getman, a Boston-based dealer in rare books and manuscripts, depicts an English family toasting the recipient with glasses of red wine. "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You," it reads, per the AP. The card was designed by painter and illustrator John Callcott Horsley at the suggestion of Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant and inventor who founded the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Cole is widely credited with starting the tradition of sending holiday cards, a multimillion-dollar industry today. Only 1,000 copies of the hand-colored card were printed, and experts believe fewer than 30 have survived, Getman notes.

The card is believed to have gone on sale in the same week in December 1843 that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol first was published. But for teetotalers—and there were plenty of those in the 19th century—the imagery included a bit too much holiday cheer: In the foreground, for example, a young girl is pictured taking a sip from an adult's glass. That didn't sit well at the time with the puritanical Temperance Society, which kicked up such a fuss it took three years before another Christmas card was produced. "They were quite distressed that in this 'scandalous' picture they had children toasting with a glass of wine along with the adults. They had a campaign to censor and suppress it," says Justin Schiller, the founder of Battledore Ltd., a New York dealer in antiquarian books that's selling the card. Christie's auction house in London is also selling one of the rare cards and says it expects the item to fetch up to $10,800. (More Christmas card stories.)

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