LONDON -- As Christmas approached in 1843, a young civil servant named Henry Cole found himself too busy to write the traditional holiday letter to absent friends and family -- so he invented the Christmas card.
Mr. Cole hired John Callcott Horsley, a young artist, to work up a design. He printed up a thousand, sent some, sold some and took his place in the history of Christmas, commerce and trivia.
About a dozen of his cards survive. The Victoria and Albert Museum has one and it's the centerpiece of its exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Christmas card.
"It was out of this card, this very small card, more like a postcard, that a multibillion [dollar] industry rose, which is all over the world," marvels Ron Parkinson, the Victoria and Albert's curator of painting who organized the exhibit.
About 1.5 billion Christmas cards will be mailed in Britain this year. Americans will exchange more than 2.7 billion.
Sir Henry, as Mr. Cole came to be, sold his first cards for an 1843 shilling, which was a lot.
"In 1843, a shilling would have bought you dinner at a good London restaurant," says Mr. Parkinson.
Sir Henry was a most eminent Victorian. He helped develop Britain's railroads; its postal service; the Great Exhibition of 1851, with its Crystal Palace, the Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum, of which he was the first director.
"No one knew what a Christmas card should look like," Mr. Parkinson says. "There'd never been one."
John Horsley's design for the first card looks a bit like a triptych for an altar. But the scene was not religious at all. The central picture shows a family at the dinner table raising their wineglasses in a toast.
The second Christmas card didn't appear until 1848, and it looked pretty much like Sir Henry's.
The first American card was created in 1850 by the advertising department of the R. H. Pease "Temple of Fancy" department store in Albany, N.Y.
"You were on the ball very, very quickly," Mr. Parkinson tells an American reporter. "As far as we know, that's the third Christmas card."
The Christmas card really took off as a commercial idea in the 1850s and 1860s.
The first greeting card manufacturers had made Valentines for years, so the first commercial Christmas cards look just like Valentines, with paper lace, summer flowers, gold and silver papers.
By the 1870s, seasonal motifs such as Christmas trees, holly and mistletoe appeared.
"Really, all the elements . . . were taken over from pagan times, particularly classical Roman times, and their feast of Saturn, which was known as Saturnalia," says Mr. Parkinson.
Saturnalia occurred in December about the time of the winter solstice.
"Holly was Saturn's sacred plant," he says. "Christians hijacked holly. They saw the holly leaf with its thorns to be like Christ's crown of thorns, and they saw the red berries as being the blood of Christ."
But Father Christmas, Santa Claus, was an American invention. "Yes," says Mr. Parkinson, "it is really [American illustrator] Thomas Nast who invents the chubby, red-cheeked, full-bearded Father Christmas. He doesn't feature in our Christmas cards until way into the story."
Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit may owe his origin to Christmas cards designed by the author-illustrator.
"She started making a living designing Christmas cards," Mr. Parkinson says. "And her first Christmas cards in 1891 show two little rabbits in the snow getting their Christmas pudding. So, in a way, Peter Rabbit begins here."
Among the contemporary designs at the museum's memorial Christmas card display is a selection from the U.S. company Hallmark. The Hallmark display includes the 1989 prime minister's card picturing Margaret Thatcher and her husband. In a presidential card from 1958, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower wear matching Santa Claus suits.
And here is the most poignant card in the show, the 1963 Kennedy presidential card, a triumphant angel sounding a trumpet, painted by Mrs. John F. Kennedy.
The president, of course, was shot in November 1963.