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Christmas greetings...from Torquay
The first Christmas card
The first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley in Torquay.
Picture: V&A Museum
Did you know that the first commercially produced Christmas card was designed in Torquay more than 160 years ago?

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The most valuable Christmas card in the world was sold at auction in Devizes in 2001.

The card, measuring 5 x 3 inches, was hand-coloured by John Calcott Horsley and sent by Sir Henry Cole to his grandmother in 1843.

It was bought by an anonymous bidder for £20,000.

A few years after that first card was made, Parliament passed the Postage Act, making it possible to send letters for a penny. This led to the tradition of sending Christmas cards taking off.

These days, hundreds of millions of Christmas cards are given each year.

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The festive season is fast approaching and it's that time again when we all sit down to draw up our all-important Christmas Card lists.

But did you know that this annual friendly offering is a tradition which has its roots in Torquay?

We have to travel back to Victorian times for this particular Christmas story - to 1843 to be exact.

Henry Cole (later to become Sir Henry Cole) was a very busy man, working in the Public Records Office in London.

So busy in fact, that he didn't have the time to write to all his family and friends at Christmas time.

In 1840, he had an idea: why not ask well known artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with a message on it, which he could send to people.

Orestone Manor, where JC Horsley lived
Photo: Orestone Manor
JC Horsley was living at Orestone Manor between Torquay and Maidencombe at the time, and it was here where he designed that very first card.

The card shows the feeding and clothing of the poor on each side, and in the centre there is a happy family having a drink and enjoying Christmas festivities.

The words printed on the card were 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You' - so not a lot has changed since!

The card went down so well with Henry and the recipients, that in 1843, some 1,000 of the cards were produced for commercial sale at a shilling each - making it the first recorded mass production Christmas card.

However, not everyone approved. Puritans objected to the picture showing people raising a glass to Christmas. But their objections were swept aside and the rest, as they say, is history!

It's believed that the very first Christmas card was probably made in Germany centuries earlier than this, but the card designed in Torquay is the one which really marked the birth of the commercial Christmas card.

Later, Henry Cole helped to organise the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was a founder member of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London the following year. He was knighted for this work.

And JC Horsley also enjoyed a successful life. He contributed drawings to Punch, and was rector at the Royal Academy, where he he campaigned against the use of naked models.

It's thought that a dozen of Horsley's original cards still exist and you can see one of them in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Article written: November 2004

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