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Discover Your Ancestors Magazine - Nick Thorne - General Genealogy Reviews

first commercial Christmas Card

The first commercially produced Christmas card commissioned by Henry Cole 1843

Twas the night before Christmas…

Nick Thorne explores the history of Christmas cards and the Victorians who brought them to us

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the tradition of decorating the Tree, pulling crackers and greeting cards, all of which were established as part of a British Yuletide by our Victorian ancestors. It is an often repeated fact that the Christmas tree was popularised in Britain by Prince Albert, bringing a German tradition to his new home. Some of us may also be aware that the commercially printed Christmas card was a product of the mid 19th century, first being introduced by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. While Sir Henry, an English civil servant and inventor, was credited with devising the concept of sending greetings cards at Christmas time and also the introduction of the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843, it was the German emigré Raphael Tuck who promoted a much broader range of cards and also the launch of religious themed cards to Victorian Britain. Sir Henry Cole, who was born on 15 July 1808 and died on the 18 April 1882, worked with Sir Rowland Hill on the introduction of the penny post in 1840. In 1843 he commissioned John Callcott Horsley to design a greeting card that Sir Henry then made commercially available with a total of 2,050 cards being printed and sold for a shilling each. As we can see in the census of 1851, found on (pictured below), Sir Henry had become Assistant Keeper of the Public Records and one of the Executive Committee of the Exhibition of 1851.

Sir Henry Cole's Census record

The Census record of Sir Henry Cole from 1851 located on The Genealogist

Sir Henry Cole's Census record

The Census record of Sir Henry Cole

Raphael Tuck and sons

Raphael Tuck and sons

The first Christmas card was not as successful as it could have been with the temperance league disapproving of it from the point of view that its design would encourage drunkenness. In October 1866, in a little shop in London’s Bishopsgate area, Raphael Tuck and his wife Ernestine set up together a picture business that would have an artistic effect on most of the civilized world. The family were Prussian Jews that had immigrated to Britain with their seven children – four boys and three girls – and their company began selling pictures and greeting cards expanding to eventually include postcards. It was this particular line that was to become the most successful with their business being best known in the ‘postcard boom’ of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Ironically, as Raphael was a Jew and a respected Talmudic scholar, he would become one of the most important promoters of the Christmas card. Raphael Tuck had noticed that most of the cards sent were mainly secular in design focused on seasonal revelry, as can be seen in the example of Henry Cole’s original. In 1871 Tuck supervised the design of a series of religious themed cards featuring Jesus Christ, the Holy Pair, the Magi, the Nativity scene, as well as the traditional Santa Claus, holly and mistletoe.

Three out of four of his sons joined the company with the second son, Adolph, eventually becoming the chairman and managing director of Raphael Tuck and Sons, Ltd. until his death on 3 July 1926. The Tucks, it would seem, became very much part of British society. In 1875 Raphael became a naturalised British subject, as we are able to discover by a search of the Overseas, Home Office Naturalisation collection on TheGenealogist, where we found his certificate numbered A1503 with a date of 30 January 1875. Raphael’s son, Adolph Tuck, would be created a baronet on 19 July 1910 and we can find Sir Adolph holding various important positions within the London Jewish community in several of the London synagogue seatholder records to be found on TheGenealogist.

At the time of the Great War, when the land of their birth was at war with Britain, their company was being celebrated as a “great firm” when it was reported in The Sphere Magazine of December 1914 that Raphael Tuck & Sons had been given a large order to supply the Christmas cards to Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra carrying on a tradition started in 1893 when Queen Victoria had granted the firm the Royal Warrant of Appointment. Tuck cards had, from then on in her reign, borne the message ‘Art Publishers to Her Majesty the Queen’, with future sovereigns continuing the warrant of appointment for Tucks. Searching the trade directories on TheGenealogist for Raphael Tuck & Co returns several entries including one from 1916 which proudly lists their products and their position as publishers to their Majesties the King & Queen. Very often we bemoan the commercialisation of Christmas and like to proclaim how it was oh so much simpler in days gone by. But how many of us would like to see Christmas without all these well established commercial introductions of our Victorian ancestors, whose footprints we have found in the records on TheGenealogist website

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