UPDATED: New York auction for first ever Christmas cards

Three of the world's first ever Christmas cards launched in London in 1843 were auctioned off in New York today (Friday 10th December).

Lot 22 (shown right) was sold for $10,500 (£6,655.95)
Lot 23 (right below) was sold for $7,000 (£4,437.3)
Lot 24 sold for $4,250 (£2,694.075)

The three cards produced 167 years ago are to be auctioned by Sothebys New York at 3pm GMT and are expected to fetch as much as 10,000 pounds each.

One of the cards showed a family feasting and drinking, with one child controversially being taught how to consume wine, while three other youngsters tuck in to a plum pudding.

The cheerful image is flanked by depictions of charity, with the poor and dispossessed being helped out, and a message in the centre of the card reads: "A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You".

The cards, which were hand coloured, were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole from artist, John Calcott Horsley and published by Summerley's Home Treasury Office, 12, Old Bond Street, London. At the time the design for the Cole's Christmas card was criticised for promoting drunkenness.

The cards were acquired by the late advertising entrepreneur Jock Elliott, who loved Christmas and spent years amassing almost anything to do with the festive season.

He died in 2005 aged 84 and his family are now selling some of his Christmas collection at the auction.

"These were the first Christmas cards produced and only 18 are known to exist," a spokesperson from Sotheby's said.

"These came from a famous collection of Christmas items called the Jock Elliott collection. One even comes with an envelope, which is something I've never seen before.

"And there is also a red proof of one of the cards which was sent by Henry Cole in 1865 - some years after he produced the first batch.

"A few years later different cards were produced and the tradition of sending the cards really began," he added.

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By the nineteenth century, "all-purpose" cards were widely available. The sender could fill in the name of the recipient, the occasion, a short greeting, and signature. Also available prior to the first card was the Christmas envelope.

Henry Cole took the idea one length further by commissioning artist John Calcott Horsley to create an appropriately festive image on a card and inserted a banner with the greeting "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." Horsley devised a family party of adults lifting a glass of good cheer to the recipient of the card in the center panel, flanking it with images of Christmas charity (feeding and clothing the poor). There is a line at the top in which to insert the recipient's name and another at the bottom which the sender could sign.

In his memoirs, Henry Cole erroneously stated that the first cards were printed in 1846, but the matter was settled when three of the original cards, signed by the artist and dated 1843 surfaced. One thousand cards were printed, hand-colored, and sold at the extravagant price of a shilling a card.

The image of the merry tipplers (one of them a child, the other three children are tucking into a plum pudding) also occasioned disapproval from the temperance league who feared the card would encourage drunkenness.

In spite of its ingenuity, the first Christmas card was not an instant success, and a new card would not be designed for another five years by W. M. Egley.

The custom of sending Christmas cards took off in the 1860s with the advent of the less expensive process of color printing. In his memoirs, Henry Cole also alludes to the post office figures for 1880 which indicated an increase of more than 11 1/2 million letters above the ordinary correspondence and four tons of extra registered letters in Christmas week, representing a total postage revenue of ₤58,000. It should be remembered that Cole not only invented the first Christmas card, but was involved in the founding of the penny post, postage stamps, and postage cards.

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