Sir Henry Cole

I keep coming back to Sir Henry Cole because it was he who created the first commercially available greeting cards in the UK. The thought of him often sits in the back of my mind when we are designing cards. In my mind’s eye I see a wisp of a timeline that leads from his first idea through to the creators today. Since the rise of short-run digital printing the number of creators has risen a hundred fold, a thousand fold.

So, back to Sir Henry Cole. He was born July 15, 1808, and was an English architect, artist and writer. He is possibly most famous for the creation of the first commercially available greeting card, which was inspired by his work at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in London.

Happy Christmas Card

He developed the design for the card, which became known as the “Happy Christmas” in 1843, based on a sketch he had done of his wife, Mary. He then worked with a local printer (more about that below) to create and send them to his many contacts. And then with that under his belt, to sell them, making them available to the public for the first time.

Sir Henry Cole and Crystal Palace

And just to round out the man, Sir Henry Cole was also instrumental in the creation of the Crystal Palace, which was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, as well as several other public works projects in the UK.

Henry Cole was born in London into a wealthy family. It was therefore normal and expected that he would receive the education he did. That was, namely, a classical education at Eton College and then going up to Christ Church College in Oxford, where he graduated in 1832 with a degree in mathematics.

Bridging Art and Science

And yet not everyone who has the benefit of a classical education bridges the gap between science and the Arts. But Cole did. He was a prominent figure in British society and made significant contributions to the field of industrial design. Plus, he was the secretary of the Society for the Promotion of the Arts and played a key role in the foundation of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The V&A Tearooms

And he was also the man who brought the tea room to the Victoria and Albert Museum, with elegant rooms designed by the foremost artists and craftsmen of the day. If you ‘pop along’ to the V&A today you can sit in those rooms and dine or grab a coffee in the Refreshment Rooms.

It was against this background of the man who was at the front end of many public works and organisations, that in the 1840s Cole became interested in the idea of creating mass-produced stationery. He commissioned a series of prints from prominent artists and published them on high-quality paper. One of these designs, called “Tantalus,” was a greeting card that featured two people embracing.

The Universal Stationery Co

In 1842, Cole founded the Universal Stationery Co. with John Cassells, a printer and publisher. The company was a pioneer in the creation of greeting cards, and Cole designed many of the early offerings.

Cole’s greeting cards were popular with the middle class and upper-middle class, and they quickly became a social phenomenon. People began using them to express their sentiments on a wide range of occasions, including birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Actually, it was only upper-middle class people who sent them, because the cost was too great for the poor. The Penny post introduced with pre-paid stamps in 1840 were within people’s grasp, but to buy lithographic cards was another matter. But from lithographic designs to photogravure and computer read digital printing was only a matter of time.

How far we have come and in just a century and a half to the situation now with photographic reproductions of a quality that was unimaginable in Cole’s day.

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