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Origins of the Victorian Christmas card

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As part of our celebration of Christmas at the Royal Pavilion we are showcasing a new display of Victorian Christmas cards developed by Marcus Bagshaw. Following his post last week, Marcus gives readers a further insight into the development of the Christmas card in the Victorian period, inspired by those he has worked with from Royal Pavilion & Museums’ collections.

The Victorian Christmas card has proved to be a fascinating subject to work on, and has unearthed some real curiosities. But how did the Victorian Christmas Card originate?

It all began with an illustration by J.C. Horsley in 1843 depicting a group of people making merry, and was first put on sale in 1846, but the idea of buying and sending Christmas cards did not immediately catch on.

One of the reasons why the first Christmas card was not an immediate success was because it was lithographed and hand coloured thereby forcing the cost to a shilling which was very expensive for the time. Mass production and therefore lower costs where not possible until colour printing was developed by George Baxter and his followers in the 1850s and 1860s.

Commercial production of Christmas cards was eventually made feasible by the introduction of the Penny-Post in 1840. Before then it was the recipient who bore the cost, which not surprisingly was a deterrent to sending messages of good wishes at Christmas.

Although the reduction in the cost of sending mail, and the advances in colour printing were all important factors in the development of Christmas card production, the main reason behind it was that the producers of the already established Valentine cards saw the rich market potential in Christmas card manufacture.

Early designs which make up the display look distinctly unseasonal to us, but proved to be very popular with the Victorians.

Humour was often evident in Victorian Christmas cards but not always of a kind that we can appreciate today.

Religious themes were surprisingly uncommon. Designs using the cross normally associated with Easter show us how the Victorians mixed up their religious festivals.

Flowers were a very popular motif largely driven by the Victorians interest in the ‘language of flowers’ – the symbolic meanings of particular flowers, quite apart from their decorative value.

Other popular imagery with no Christmas associations whatsoever  included  seascapes, snowless landscapes, birds and animals, and bizarrely, smoking and writing utensils which seem totally out of place with our usual concept of Christmas imagery!

These distinctly unseasonal images would eventually be replaced by designs heavily influenced by the popularity of Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ published in 1842; the illustration ‘Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle’ showing Queen Victoria and her family gathered round the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle which appeared in the Illustrated London News in December 1848; and Clement Clarke Moore’s immortal poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’ published in 1823, later picked up by political cartoonist Thomas Nast who drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness of Santa Claus which appeared in Harpers Weekly in 1881.

All of these were contributory factors that shaped the image of Christmas in the minds of Victorian’s and generations to come.

Royal Pavilion & Museums have many other examples of strange, early Christmas cards from Victorian era. You can view and download these from our Digital Media Bank.

Marcus Baghsaw, Visitor Services Officer