In the run up to Christmas you may well be thinking about sending Christmas cards to friends and family. Despite the growth in ecards the traditional Christmas card is still very popular and some 1 billion cards will be sent this Christmas in the UK.
So where and when did it all begin? The very first commercially produced Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert museum on 1st May 1843. Illustrated by John Callcott Horsley, the central picture showed three generations of a family raising a toast to the card’s recipient bordered by scenes of food and clothing being given to the poor.
By all accounts the image of the family drinking wine together proved controversial (see the small girl having a slurp). Cole’s commissioning of the cards was a clever move as three years earlier he was instrumental in the introduction of the Penny Post and promoting the mailing of Christmas cards wouldn’t have done the service any harm. A total of 2,050 cards were produced and sold for a shilling (5p) each.
As director of the V&A Sir Henry was quite the innovator. The V&A was the first museum in the world to be lit by gaslight allowing the galleries to remain open until 10pm twice a week. Cole was keen to offer the working classes somewhere to visit in the evening to ‘furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace’.
The museum was also the first in the world to have a museum restaurant. Located in the north side of the quadrangle the restaurant is still open today in its original location. Orginally known as the Refreshment Rooms, the elaborate Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms make up the restaurant (the former being designed by William Morris himself).
The restaurant offered different first and second class menus, and a third class service for ‘mechanics and all workmen employed at the Museum Buildings and even for the humble working class visitors’.