Because of The Canterbury INDEX’s lead times, I am writing this piece around eight weeks before Christmas Day – we’ve only just celebrated Halloween and Guy Fawkes night – but already the shops are full of Christmas goodies. And chief among the shelves of baubles and tinsel are the many racks of Christmas cards.
From chocolate box scenes of cute frost-covered cottages to arty photographic images of Highland cows deep in snow, the choice is endless. But did you ever stop to think when the tradition of sending cards started? Like a lot of modern innovations, this one also began in Victorian times.
Sir Henry Cole (July 1808-April 1882) was a British civil servant and inventor who was responsible for many innovations in commerce and education in the 19th century. In his role as a civil servant he was instrumental in modernising the UK’s postal service and for introducing the first penny stamps. He was also heavily involved with the arts. Having successfully modernised the British postal system and managed the construction of the Albert Hall, Cole also arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and oversaw the inauguration of the Victoria and Albert Museum, later becoming its first director.
Most of all it seems, Cole sought to “beautify life”, and even ran an art shop on Bond Street, specialising in decorative objects for the home. In the summer of 1843 Cole decided he wanted to surprise his friends with a novel and colourful card instead of the usual Christmas letter, and commissioned his friend John Horsley to design a card for that year’s Christmas. Together they designed the first card and sold them for one shilling each. The card had three panels with the outer two panels showing people caring for the poor and in the centre panel was an illustration of a family having a large Christmas dinner.
About 1,000 cards were printed and sold. They are now very rare with very few survivors. In 2001 one of Cole’s first Christmas cards, which was sent to his grandmother in 1843, sold at an auction in Devizes for £22,500, over £10,000 more than expected. And so the Christmas card tradition was born.
The combination of better printing processes and cheap postage rates meant that just about everyone could afford to buy and send printed cards – although until about 1880 they were still considered luxury items.
In Victorian times, many cards were extremely elaborate with gilding, embossing and pop-up or pierced sections. Very few illustrate the religious meaning of the festival and they rarely show landscapes blanketed in snow or reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh over the countryside – common images today. Instead, the Victorians chose to illustrate nature in all its forms. They gloried in colourful cards that depicted delightful pictures of spring and summer.
Very early Christmas cards often have attractive birds on them or flowers and countryside scenes. These images were a reminder that winter would soon give way to spring. Children, too, were often sentimentalised on Victorian Christmas cards. Domestic animals were also popular – look out for cats in comic poses and dogs in anthropomorphic postures wearing funny hats or even posting letters.
Many can still be found but as with all paper collectables, condition is paramount. Tears and folds can dramatically reduce the value. Examine the card carefully before buying and, if buying online, ask to see close up photos of the card’s front and back.
Prices for Victorian cards vary depending on condition and rarity but as a guide expect to pay from as little as £1 up to £200. Rarer examples will always fetch more.