Christmas is almost upon us and many people started the festivities early this year to spread some much-needed cheer. One long-held Christmas tradition is the sending of cards. There are around 250 historic Christmas cards in our collections, dating from the late 1800s to the 1980s.
The first Christmas card was produced in 1843 by Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum. He decided it was inefficient to write a message to each person on his Christmas list individually and commissioned his friend the artist John Calcott Horsley to create a card and message that could be printed many times. Cole then simply had to address and sign each one before sending them off. It took some time before this idea gained popularity with the general public, but by 1880 the Postmaster General issued the first-ever 'Post early for Christmas' plea, showing that the Christmas card habit had taken hold.
At the time the new process of chromolithography or colour printing enabled cards to be colourful, elaborate and cheap. Flowers were a very popular feature on early Christmas cards. They were brought in to decorate the home during Christmas, as a symbol of hope, life and fertility for the coming year.
Floral Christmas card enclosed within a pierced paper doily-style envelope featuring a robin on the front and Santa Claus on the back.
Victorian postmen are said to have inspired the appearance of robins on Christmas cards, they were nicknamed ‘Robins’ due to their bright red uniforms. Robins continue to be a common sight on modern Christmas cards. Festive snow-covered scenes, cute animals and children also continue to be popular motifs on our Christmas cards today.
Single-sided Christmas card depicting a winter scene with children skating on a frozen river or lake.
Christmas card with a printed image of a Skye terrier (Scottie Dog) with a red ribbon around its neck. The dog is reaching up for a present shown on the lower branches of a Christmas tree. There are also sprigs of holly decorating the front of the card and a festive message. The inside of the card features a printed image of snow covered buildings and a church on one side and candles and holly on the other. There is also a printed festive verse and handwritten message
Santa Claus also featured on early Christmas cards, however, he looks a bit different to the jolly, rotund fellow in the red coat we are familiar with today. He was first depicted as a much more saintly figure, derived from Saint Nicholas. By the late 1800s, the modern Santa was invented and given his jolly appearance by Thomas Nast who drew him for Harper's Magazine with a beard and fur-lined robe.
Wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas!
Blog by Jenny Pape, Curator (History)