Object Highlight #25 – Victorian Festive Cards

Today our Object Highlight has a festive turn and we are looking at some of the festive Victorian greetings cards in our collection.

In 2020 approximately £162 million worth of Christmas cards were sold in the UK and, like many unusual British traditions, we have the Victorians to thank for it. Though Queen Victoria was said to have sent the first official Christmas card, it is believed that the first commercial Christmas cards were made and sent by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He commissioned painter John Callcott Horsley to design the cards. These cards were then printed lithographically, and hand-coloured by the professional colourer Mason. Around 1000 were made in the first run and spares were sold at one shilling each after Cole had sent his cards for the year.

The Victorians were already very fond of sending cards for St Valentine’s Day and took very well to the idea of festive cards. The popularity rose sharply when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert started sending cards as the Victorians were of the view of ‘anything the Queen does we want to do as well’. Many early Christmas cards were floral and not really what we think of today as festive, as the printers who were producing them were also producers of Valentine’s card looking to diversify their range. Below is one such card from our collection.

a victorian christmas card with a pale yellow background with a spray of brightly coloured pansy and other other flower and a bible verse of a card

The Victorians enjoyed affordable postage for the first time thanks to the Uniform Penny post and so they were hungry for new designs and innovations that they could send to family and friends. With popularity rising and production costs going down due to new technologies, more unusual cards become popular. Below we have a New Year’s celebration card that has pulleys to make the singer heads bob up and down. This card is part of our extensive Whittaker collection, which features many everyday Victorian objects.

a new years card with a drawing of three girls in the snow wearing winter coats with muffs their heads are pop up and one head is missing

The seasonal cards diversified, and cards specifically to celebrate New Years were sent. These would often depict scenes of joyful abandon, hopeful spring scenes and people celebrating with family. Some examples of this from our collection are below.

a card with a snowy scene showing a mother in daughter in winter coats the daughter appears to be skating and the card wishes the receiver a happy new year

a finely decorated new years greeting card with a drawing of a house and cherry tree in bloom at the top and robins on a branch at the bottom with a poetic verse written in cursive in the middle

Whilst many of the cards produced had religious or moral messages, there was a growing trend for cards featuring anthropomorphised animals and other novelty cards. These generally were aimed at children though cards with more adult humour were also in production.

a drawing of an owl with a cap on styled as a head teacher talking to a group of robins asking them to keep out of mischief the background shows a snowy woodland


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