World’s first printed Christmas card revealed in Charles Dickens exhibition

The world’s first-ever printed Christmas card will be revealed in a new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens museum.

The Beautiful Books: Dickens and the business of Christmas exhibition explores Dickens’ impact on modern Christmas and the journey of the Victorian publishing “phenomenon”.

The museum in Holborn, central London, will exhibit books, sketches and illustrations including the world’s first printed Christmas card, alongside its proof copy.

The hand-coloured lithographed card, made in 1843 by Henry Cole, a British civil servant, shows a family celebrating the festive season flanked by images of Christmas charity.

Sold for one shilling each, the card was not a success “in spite of its originality”, but the idea took off in 1877 when 4.5 million cards were posted to families.

A spokesman for the museum said Mr Cole worked at the Penny Post, a postal system in which normal letters could be sent for one penny, and the inspiration for making Christmas cards may have come from his work.

Asked why the cards had a late success, he said: “The first card was quite expensive at a shilling each, so by the time of the later version, there was more demand and also the later card was a lot cheaper to buy.”

He added that Mr Cole only made 1,000 copies and it was for “a fairly limited audience”, but the later cards were not made by him.

Other items on display at the exhibition, which runs until April 19 next year, include early sketches of Dickens’ Scrooge, Fezziwig and the Christmas ghosts by John Leech and cloth-bound books illustrated with woodcuts and steel plate engravings such as Forget Me Not and The Keepsake.

Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, said: “Dickens and Christmas will forever be linked and his influence on the season remains as strong as ever.”

She went on to say Dickens became “king of the commercial Christmas” and “changes in the country created the perfect conditions for him to publish A Christmas Carol, a thing of beauty, both in content and presentation”.

Dickens’ taper strand and oil lamp will also feature to showcase the way in which technology advances changed the reading experience.

Ms Sughrue added that the museum was “grateful” to The Brick Row Shop, the oldest antiquarian book business based in San Francisco, California, for “generously” loaning the world’s first Christmas card for this year’s exhibition.