Resource of the Month – Christmas Card and Postcard Books

British Christmas cards from the 1850’s

In this digital age when tweets, direct messaging and emails are a more convenient manner of communication, during this wintry season the mailed Christmas card and postcard has endured as a heartfelt and personal way of sending best wishes across the miles to family and friends. As one might expect philatelists as well share in this sending, collecting and researching of these special paper missives. This month’s highlighted resources detail the history, variety and color of Christmas cards and postcards, specializing in the earliest renderings of these yuletide philatelic treasures.

The first “modern” Christmas card was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole, a dedicated British civil-servant and scholar. In a bit of philatelic history unrelated to Christmas, Sir Cole was one of many who played a role alongside Rowland Hill in passing reforms in the British Parliament that lowered the cost of postage to a single penny in order to promote public postal use, what we know today as the “penny post. ” In a similar vein, Sir Cole sought to further encourage the public’s use of the British postal system when he commissioned the first commercially produced Christmas card illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on May 1, 1843.

The first commercial Christmas card of 1843 commissioned by Sir Henry Cole

There are three excellent resources in the APRL collection that provide useful information on these seasonal specialties. The first is The History of the Christmas Card by Gyorgy Buday [HE6184 .C555 B927h]. Buday’s work charts the history of the “modern” Christmas card which dates back to Cole’s 1843 card while providing information about the forerunners to these cards which were no more than seasonal greetings and good wishes. These inscribed cards date back to Pre-Christian times in ancient Egypt.. Chapters dealing with the various types of Christmas cards (religious, comic, animated, mechanical) and their subject matter (Christian, Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas, nature)  are also detailed in Buday’s book. The work concludes with a list of the artists, designers and sentiment writers for Christmas cards up to 1900.

The second of three resources on the subject is Christmas Cards for the Collector by Arthur Blair [HE6184 .C555 B635c 1986]. Like Buday, Blair delves into the history of the first Christmas cards of the 19th century and examines the same topics such as types and subject matter of the cards, only this time with many more illustrations, many of which are in color including the first Christmas envelope of 1840 and the aforementioned first “modern” Christmas card of 1843, the former of which was designed by Richard Doyle as seen below.

Finally like Christmas cards, yuletide postcards also came into existence in Britain but in this case in the latter portion of the 19th century in the 1880’s. The Christmas postcard evolved as a seasonal variation of the trade card. Trade cards first appeared earlier in the 1800’s as simple black and white cards that were distributed as a means of identifying and locating a merchant’s business. As color lithography grew in the latter 19th century and with the popularity of Christmas cards, the appetite and audience for festive postcards was born and seasonal postcards begun to become part of the history of this season’s greetings.

A resource that delves into these yuletide philatelic items in colorful detail and the most illustrative of the three is Christmas Postcards by Robert Reed [HE6184 .P864 R325]. Reed’s work not only includes a brief history of Christmas postcards, it also lists and illustrates cards for the decades of the 1900’s, 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s. Reed further provides information on the popular topics of the postcards as well as the key authors and publishers. For the collector, an added benefit found in Reed’s work along with the colorful illustrations of many Christmas postcards are valuations which are included for each of the postcards.

One of many pages of colorful postcards from Reed’s book with dates and valuations

Members interested in borrowing or collectors interested in obtaining scans or photocopies from any of these three highlighted Christmas-related resources can contact the APRL today at

One thought on “Resource of the Month – Christmas Card and Postcard Books”

  1. Thanks for putting this one together, as my wife and I are very interested in the Christmas card subject. Carol is a member of the Christmas Philatelic Club, and this is another good set of resources for her.

    No need to respond, just enjoy your Christmas, and a very happy new year to follow. P. Petersen

Comments are closed.