From Christmas cards to a Crystal Palace

This is the first ever commercial Christmas card commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each:

But the the Christmas card wasn’t the only claim to fame for Sir Cole. After visiting the Paris Exhibition in 1849, he dreamed up the idea of a grander exhibition in London. So he persuaded Prince Albert and many other worthies to put on a Great Exhibition, showcasing the works and industries from nations around the world.

It was a massively ambitious project, particularly as the aim was to have it built in a year. Nothing had ever been built to such a scale so quickly. Indeed, at that time the Houses of Parliament had been under reconstruction for over a decade and would take a further 30 years to complete. Henry Cole and his team set up a competition for designing the building that would house the Great Exhibition but none of the entrants submitted feasible designs. In the end, a fascinating chap by the name of Joseph Paxton rocked up. He had no architectural or engineering background – he was actually a gardener, and a most excellent one at that.

Below is his initial sketch which he jotted down during a meeting. His idea was accepted and with some more detailed designs and 35 weeks of exceptional project management, the Crystal Palace was completed. It was an epic building, 1851 foot long in celebration of the year, built around some already existing elm trees, and costing £80,000. Impressive.