A hot-wax fingerprint Christmas card

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By | From the Collections

How many Christmas cards will you send this year, if at all? The vogue for hand-crafted cards is gradually disappearing as we become ever more digital in sending out festive wishes each year.

There is a particularly interesting example of a handmade card from 1893 in the Francis Galton papers. It bears the fingerprints, in sealing wax, of Katherine Symonds, the daughter of the poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds. Judging by her exclamations beside each fingerprint, the process of using hot wax to attain these prints may well have been painful.

Finger-printed Christmas card from Katherine Symonds to Francis Galton in 1893,

Finger-printed Christmas card from Katherine Symonds to Francis Galton in 1893. Wellcome Library reference: GALTON/2/9/6/11/7.

Galton was an accomplished polymath, chiefly known for his work on heredity and statistics. He was particularly keen on collecting data, including the fingerprints of his friends and associates. His archive contains the fingerprints of over 300 people, including familiar names such as the author Emile Zola and the scientist Sir William Grove. There are even fingerprints of chimpanzees. And he had a seal made from his own fingerprint that was used on the name cards for the Annual Galton Laboratory dinner.


Not all fingerprints in his collection were extracted by painful hot wax methods. Galton went on to effectively develop a reliable system of recording and identifying fingerprints using the more comfortable method of inking. This is still used today in forensic science. He also created a classification system, which he published in his book, Finger Prints (1892).


The Galton papers are freely available online as part of the  Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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