Victorian values

18th December 2019

Does anyone send Christmas cards any more? Yes, apparently – they’re back in vogue for digital-weary tastemakers, with 19th-century designs proving surprisingly collectible.

Words by Bea Stevenson

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For anyone under the age of 30, the idea of sending Christmas cards by post feels like a quaint ritual from another age, maintained either in a spirit of deliberate nostalgia, as an ironic act, or for the indulgence of older relatives. After all, in an age of constant self-broadcasting social media, there's scant need for the annual update missive. In one Hallmark Cards focus group, 52 per cent admitted to sending their season’s greetings via social media or messaging apps, so it’s hardly a surprise that sales of Christmas cards are in freefall. 

A rearguard action is underway, however. Just as in other areas of modern life, as the digital world takes grip, the desire to treasure a physical artefact resurfaces, and so we see a growing vogue for collecting – and even posting – beautiful, quirky or downright kitsch vintage Christmas cards. 

The first Christmas card as we would recognise it today was sent in 1843 when the popular arts patron Henry Cole faced an overwhelming stack of personal correspondences, and had the brilliant idea of sending back a one-size-fits-all festive card with a salutation printed across its cover. He enlisted an artist friend, John Callcott Horsley, to design the card, which featured a family raising a toast to the holiday. A silky pink banner draped the bottom of the design, its golden lettering delivering the classic greeting: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”. After a few decades, the sending of such cards had become a tradition among the upper and middle classes of Britain and America. Queen Victoria herself was in the habit of sending cards to family and servants at Windsor and Osborne.

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These early cards were in line with the Victorian obsession with the natural world and sentimentalised children. Some of the most popular visual themes included flowers, robins and other anthropomorphised animals in the company of cherubic toddlers – picture a beaming child hand-in-hand with several upright and frankly rather creepy creatures on a snowy eve. Some rarer examples may seem particularly strange to our contemporary eyes. As collectors and well-wishers have increasingly sought out sentimental Victorian-era cards, a parade of dead robins, warring frogs, anthropomorphised onions and oddly adult-looking infants has emerged, all accompanied by kindly sentiments of the season. 

Rarer still, you might come across cards containing the verses of iconic Victorian poets – Alfred, Lord Tennyson was reputedly offered up to a thousand guineas to pen a dozen or so short verses for Christmas cards. Other cards fold out into triptychs or slide apart to reveal grazing reindeers. One intricate Victoriana fold-out design sold for £ 135 on eBay in 2016, so you probably won't be sending that one to your friends, but a quick trawl through your nearest junk shop may well provide vintage cards for more modest sums. Season’s greetings!

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This article was taken from the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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