Let's take a walk back - a long walk back - into the past, before any of us was around. Specifically, let's go back to the Victorian Era. Specifically, Victorian holiday greeting cards.
Now, there is no question that Victorian times have acquired an outsized reputation in the modern era as being, well, bad. They were repressive, excessive, possessive - come on, help me out here, you know what I mean.
Anyway, my point is not to go off into a historical rant - which actually is like my favorite thing to do, but we'll set that aside for the time being. Instead, today's topic is simply to look at something we can probably - mostly - agree wasn't so bad about the bad old times, and even maybe good to some degree or another. Dare say I that something Victorian might have been good? Perish the thought!
Greeting cards were cutting edge technology in the 1800s. They only came about because of that newfangled invention 'the public post,' with those fancy new envelopes and stamps and the curiosity of delivery to mail boxes or door slots and all that. These advances made sending the cards cheap enough for ordinary folks - having them all hand-delivered could get pricey! Sir Henry Cole became a Sir because he started the tradition in 1843. He actually had a batch of 1000 made up (see the last card below) by an artist, John Horsley, and a legend was born.
Anyway, below are quality Christmas cards from Victorian England. They illustrate all sorts of charming points, not least of which is that seasonal greetings change so seldom that they are practically inert. I personally can vouch for the fact that some of the cards below are not only reminiscent of modern greetings, they are practically still in use today. I actually have in the not too distant past sent cards which are uncannily similar to some of the images below, and these weren't presented as 'vintage' or anything like that to make them seem cool because they were old. If you ever listen to the radio around mid-December and hear carols from singers who otherwise haven't been anywhere near a radio station in about fifty years, you'll know what I mean. There is no more traditional part of society than 'the holidays,' they change about as fast as a glacier sliding uphill.
|Naturally, many cards had a religious theme - but a surprising amount did not.|
It used to be customary for ordinary folks to have a growing list of Christmas card recipients that they would maintain throughout their lives - not just on this year's version of Windows or Linux. Dad would spend hours and hours at the dining room table, going through his list of college buddies, army comrades, old workplace acquaintances, distant relatives, and on and on and on. Then, he would stagger out into the night under the load of the literally hundreds of cards and send them out. And wo betide if he forgot someone! They might not send one the next year, and then he'd be in a pickle and maybe have to 'cross them off the list,' which was akin to a summary execution. And all because he simply skipped that line in the list!
The point being that greeting cards were big back in the day. They were not some kind of frippery or frappery or whatever you want to call them. These were big deals, and thus great care was lavished upon them. It was a way for people to stay connected in a cold and cruel world when telephones were used for emergencies only and television was not around to dull the mind and make you forget that you actually needed to know real people in order to stimulate your mind and learn things and not just pass out every night before images formed from pixels on a screen.
All right, I know you didn't come here to read my endless ramblings. However, I will point out a few things before I let you go:
- I said these are Victorian, and that is how the Museum of London presents them, but actually quite a few are Edwardian. In my defense, nobody is going to know the difference because Edwardian England isn't notorious enough to be remembered - but kindly do me a huge solid and don't sniff dismissively and shake your head in sadness at my ignorance and public school education if you somehow do appreciate the difference, k?
- Many of these cards reflect the political agitations of the day in a sometimes aggressive or 'in your face' manner that actually is quite charming now. I particularly like the one sending the girls to the dungeon whilst the boys enjoy the 'nice' tree (darn it, I wanna see the girls' scraggly tree down in the crypt!) and all the presents (except the leftovers if there are any - yeah, right). Yes, some folks back then were like me and didn't believe in subtlety, either, and the gender wars will never, ever, ever end.
- Carrying on from that last point, some themes in these cards are just plain eternal and you will never escape them no matter how long you may somehow fortuitously manage to live or where you choose to hide out, and I am looking in your direction, kittens and puppies and flowers.
- Some of these cards are scarce, beautiful, and thus quite valuable even though they are now so old that there isn't a living soul who might ever have actually used them. Thus, if you are worried about buying that Ty Cobb baseball card or original Superman comic book or Pontiac muscle car but worry that the market may dry up once the Boomers who loved them all die off - don't. Collectibles like these hold their value long after the cohort in question has gone to its final reward.
|This card comprised of a single sheet of card printed with a coloured chromolithographed image of five cutie kittens on a snow-lined wall|
|A Victorian greeting card depicting a child posting a letter in time for Christmas. But, wait, did that guy 'fall off the wagon' back there?|
|'A Merry Christmas and Votes for Women in 1910', produced by the pro-women's suffrage campaign. The drummer girl is modelled on a young member of the Junior Band attached to the Women's Band|
|'Votes for Women' Christmas Card, 1911. Designed for the WSPU by Hilda Dallas. Christmas merchandise raised funds for the 'war chest' and kept the profile of the campaign in the public eye. Suffrage came about, but not in 1911.|
|Father Christmas dressed in blue giving presents to children in the snow|
|Pro-suffrage propaganda postcard captioned 'To the Girl's Christmas Tree'. Produced by the Suffrage Atelier. You little greedy things, wanting presents! This is quite possibly the best card of all time.|
|Seasonal scene: A Christmas card with robins sitting on a flower pot, which wishes the recipient a 'merry Christmas'|
|Teetotalism: An anti-alcoholic drink Christmas card, promoting drinking tea instead of the 'hollow joys of strong drink'|
|Christmas card with illustration of goblin wearing spectacles with a quiff of hair tied with red ribbon|
|Christmassy scene: Victorian Christmas card showing a colourful group of robins on a holly bush branch|
|Victorian Christmas Card showing a clown with a message that reads, 'You are the biggest fool I ever met, put this on your mantle piece.'|
|Christmas card showing shepherds gazing at a bright star. The text below reads, 'WHEN THEY SAW THE STAR, THEY REJOICED WITH EXCEEDING GREAT JOY.'|
|Christmas card: 'Wishing You High Jinks This Christmas'|
|Only one of these cards, designed by John C Horsley, is still in existence - and was sold in 2005 for £8,500|