Since the very first ones were sent in 1843 by Henry Cole (funnily enough, the same clever chap who had launched the Penny Post just three years earlier), Christmas cards have been spreading festive cheer every year. One of these early cards fetched over £22,000 at auction in 2001, but the numbers of new cards bought each year are dwindling now, thanks to free, eco-friendly, super-speedy – and rather impersonal – emails.
It’s old fashioned and appallingly expensive, but I still send cards every year, so I’m always on the lookout for inspiring vintage ephemera to recycle into a ‘new’ design. This year, I used the cover of some old Christmas carol sheet music I found at an antiques fair. Last year, it was a carefully typed 1949 recipe for Christmas cake, found tucked inside an old cookery book.
The first Christmas cards were pricey, but by the late Victorian period, they were much more affordable and it’s cards from this era that I’m fascinated by.
Forget the overtly festive ones with robins, holly and charitable gestures – it’s the ornate hand-painted flora and fauna ones I love; all swooping swallows, rustling reeds and colourful butterflies – not images we’d usually associate with Christmas now at all.
At a recent Christmas event held at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, I spent hours admiring a beautiful Victorian leather-bound ‘album’ – put together by a lady of leisure, no doubt – which was filled with beautiful Victorian Christmas cards, all meticulously collected, preserved and treasured.
Of course, there’s no substitution for leafing through an old album like this – or rummaging through a box of old greeting cards at an antiques fair, reading the personal messages, marveling at the spidery handwriting, noticing a thumb print, the smudge of a tear, a kiss – but the same technology that’s behind the sad demise of the Christmas card also lets us access more ephemera than we could ever dream of, without even leaving the house.
The Telegraph has a beautiful online gallery of weird and wonderful Victorian Christmas cards, which features everything from a clown stealing sausages to musical insects and an anthropomorphic bottle of port, while craft company Joanna Sheen peddles CDs of high resolution Victorian Christmas card images for you to get creative with.
Inspired? The BBC has a handy downloadable craft kit for making your own Victorian-style cards. (Please note: there is a lot of pain-staking intricate pin-hole-pricking involved, so this is a good one to give to the kids over the Christmas holidays when you want to keep them busy for a very long time…)
My New Year’s resolution is to visit the Victorian Ephemera collection at Manchester Metropolitan University, which includes the Page Collection (with around 300 original albums mainly compiled by Victorian and Edwardian ladies and filled with original watercolour paintings, verse and prose, prints, cuttings, and Christmas cards) and the Laura Seddon Collection (which contains about 32,000 Victorian and Edwardian cards by major publishers of the day such as Marcus Ward and Raphael Tuck).