Sending Holiday Greetings, Victorian Style
by Julia Hickey
We may bemoan the task of sending out dozens of
holiday cards every year, but if so, we have only the Victorians
to blame. Before Sir Rowland Hill introduced the Penny Post in
1840, it was an expensive business to send letters by mail coach.
The first letter sent with a stamp, posted from a Bath address
-- now home to the Postal Museum -- changed all of that, not
least because the sender was now responsible for the cost of
carriage rather than the recipient. One of the reasons for this
change in cost was that the new 'Public Post Office' could make
use of the fast-growing rail network to transport large
quantities of post in a fraction of the time previously taken by
the mail coach. For the first time, ordinary people could
correspond more freely with one another.
The Christmas card was invented in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, an
imaginative civil servant who perhaps saw a potential market or
was growing tired of writing lengthy Christmas missives. He
asked artist John Calcott Hosely to create a card for him. The
card, which may be seen in the print room of the Victoria and
Albert Museum, depicts a family enjoying a glass of wine and
toasting the person looking at the card. On either side of this
colorful festive gathering, the cold and hungry are given
blankets and food.
The appearance of this image must have caused some comment
when it made its appearance in Bond Street. Fashionable ladies
pausing to inspect Cole's creation will have had something to say
on the subject. Some, no doubt, will have commented on the poor
example illustrated within the card -- 'Fancy depicting a mother
giving her child alcohol!' Others will have lamented the
idleness of sending a mere card when politeness dictated that a
letter should be sent to ones friends and families. Many ladies
will have gasped when they saw the price -- one shilling for a
single card! A few, the wealthy and the inspired, parted with
their shilling and became the owners of the first 1000 cards ever
produced. They little knew that they were beginning a tradition
that would expand so dramatically in a relatively short space of
The early cards -- a range of which
can be viewed at the Victoria and Albert museum (of which Sir
Henry Cole was a founding director) -- bore little resemblance to
the nativity scenes, robins and Santa Claus images of today.
Early cards were filled with cherubs and flowers. Gradually a
more Dickensian flavour filtered into the cards. Skating
couples, holly (which appeared for the first time on Christmas
cards in 1848), stage coaches being drawn over winter landscapes,
little Kate Greenaway girls wrapped up in fur hats and muffs, and
of course robins, all appeared on Victorian cards. As the cards
became more popular they grew larger and more embellished --
lace, doilies and scraps of ribbon were used to create borders
for later cards.
As early as 1860, established artists and illustrators were
producing designs to go on these cards. William Egley, who
illustrated a number of Charles Dickens' works, is no exception.
A copy of his card can be viewed in the British Museum. The
British Museum is also home to a large selection of Victorian
Christmas cards -- many sent by Queen Victoria -- collected by
Queen Mary. By 1870, when the half penny post was introduced for
cards sent in unsealed envelopes, the Christmas card was an
established feature of the season. As more people purchased the
cards, their price decreased and in 1880 the slogan 'post early
for Christmas' was introduced (a plea that the Post Office still
issues every Christmas). A Christmas Card Mission was even
established with the goal of bringing festive cheer to prisoners,
inmates of drab workhouses and patients in hospitals who might
well need a colourful reminder that it was Christmas.
By the early 20th
century, the Christmas card was part of the fixtures and fittings
of Christmas. In addition to sentimental Edwardian Christmas
cards and regimental Christmas cards, it is possible to find
cards created by the suffragette movement, among others. In
addition to the expected images, Christmas cards reflect the
times in which they are created. The very first Christmas card
shows scenes of poverty that Charles Dickens writes about in
The Christmas Carol, which was published in the same year
as the first Christmas card. There are many fine examples of
Christmas cards sent during World War One, which -- like the
early cards -- seem to have very little to do with Christmas.
They often bear a regimental image and a patriotic message as
well as season's greetings. Some of these cards are printed.
Others are drawn by hand and tell a poignant story. Yet others
were designed to be sent home as keepsakes to wives, mothers,
sisters and sweethearts and are made from silk.
When did Father Christmas appear on the first card? Well, he
appeared on a Christmas card at the request of Abraham Lincoln
during the American Civil War. He is depicted with Union troops.
The World War I and II images seen on British Christmas and post
cards were not new: Lincoln got there first.
Today all kinds of Christmas cards are available on the market,
including facsimiles of traditional images dating from the
Victorian period onward -- especially images that have a
traditional feel. Many museums also house Christmas card
collections: many people don't seem to be able to part from their
Yuletide greetings, perhaps because they like the images, maybe
because of the sentiments and the love sent with the card or
maybe because one day they'll be collectable. After all Queen
Victoria and Winston Churchill both sent cards to their friends
- Bath Postal Museum
- The British Postal Museum and Archive
- National Portrait Gallery
- Victoria and Albert Museum
- Victorian Christmas Cards
Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article © 2005 Julia Hickey