‘Scandalous’ first Christmas card up for sale

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The first commercially printed Christmas card is up for sale – a merry Victorian-era scene that scandalised some who denounced it as humbug when it first appeared in 1843.

The card, being sold online starting Friday through a consortium run by Marvin Getman, a US-based dealer in rare books and manuscripts, depicts an English family toasting the recipient with glasses of red wine.

The first commercially produced Christmas card dated December 1843.

Dennis M V David/AP

The first commercially produced Christmas card dated December 1843.

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,” it reads. 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, 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.

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“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,” said Justin Schiller, founder and president of New York-based Battledore, a dealer in antiquarian books who is selling the card.

Getman, whose brokerage had shifted online before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted traditional touring book fairs, said the hand-coloured lithograph is believed to have been a salesperson’s sample. Only 1000 copies were printed and sold for a shilling apiece, and experts believe fewer than 30 have survived, he said.

The card, intended to double as a greeting for Christmas and New Year’s Day, 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.

It’s believed to have gone on sale in the same week in December 1843 that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol first was published.

Christie’s auction house in London also is selling one of the rare cards and says it expects the item to fetch between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds ($9,525 to $15,240).

Also being sold by the Boston consortium is Santa Claus, a handwritten poem by Emily Dickinson about the jolly old elf. Parental warning: Dickinson’s take is a little bleak for youngsters.

“She’s basically saying Santa Claus has died, but the children shouldn’t feel badly because he’s with the angels in Heaven,” Schiller said.

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