Call-out culture was alive and well in the Victorian Era: the first-ever commercial Christmas greeting card, which sold at Christie’s Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale in London today for £13,750 (~$18,370), was viewed as scandalous by British teetotalers for ostensibly promoting underage drinking.
One of 21 surviving copies of 1,000 printed, the rare lithographed card was designed by painter and illustrator John Calcott Horsley in 1843 at the request of Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant who founded the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The hand-colored central panel depicts a family toasting to the card’s recipient, flanked by images representing charitable acts. Every person at the table is holding a glass of wine, including a young child on the right, who appears to be taking a generous sip enthusiastically aided by their complicit family member. (The three smallest children in the background, notes Christie’s catalogue essay, innocently enjoy some plum pudding.)
While initially well-received, the scene caused a stir amid the burgeoning Temperance movement in England for being a little too merry.
“They were quite distressed that in this ‘scandalous’ picture they had children toasting with a glass of wine along with the adults,” Justin Schiller, a New York-based antiquarian books dealer, told AP. “They had a campaign to censor and suppress it.” It took three years before another Christmas card was produced.
However controversial the cheeky illustration may have been in the 1800s, it was met with great enthusiasm in the salesroom today. The lithograph and an accompanying signed proof, expected to fetch between £5,000-8,000 (~$6,720-$10,752), nearly doubled its high estimate. Although other cards were designed and printed from November 1844 onward, Christie’s notes that the Horsley-Cole greeting is the earliest in the tradition. It was also published in the same month as Charles Dickens’s holiday classic A Christmas Carol.
The card was one of several holiday-themed lots in the sale sold through a consortium run by the Boston-based rare books and manuscripts dealer Marvin Getman, which also included a comparatively morose handwritten poem by Emily Dickinson that is likely about Santa Claus dying.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.