The First Christmas Cards: Dead Animals And Kidnapped Children
Whether you like them or not, Christmas cards are a part of the season. They may feel like they've been around forever, but the first Christmas cards only date back to the Victorian era, when changes to the postal system made everyone all mail-happy. Until 1840, mail carriers in Britain came around 10 times a day, and the receiver had to pay for every letter, but the implementation of the postage stamp that year suddenly made correspondence affordable. Apparently, Victorians had been waiting breathlessly for the opportunity to send each other weird pictures. The first Christmas cards were morbid, creepy, and straight-up bizarre.
The first Christmas card was born of outdated etiquette
Thanks to the etiquette of the time, however, the new system posed a problem for popular Victorians. It was considered incredibly rude to ignore a letter for too long, so those who had been blessed with many friends, such as Sir Henry Cole, soon found that their correspondence had become a second job.
Up to his neck in postage, Cole figured out a simple way to respond to all of the letters. He commissioned artist J.C. Horsley to illustrate a triptych depicting a family scene centered between scenes of people helping the poor and ordered 1,000 postcard-size copies with a greeting at the top that read "TO:_____" so the cards could be addressed to anyone. Cole's unwavering manners created the first Christmas card.
Christmas cards came about in a confluence of yuletide cheer
While Cole scrambled to catch up with all of his friends, the rest of England's citizens were finding their own Christmas spirit. The most important one, as usual, was The Queen. Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were photographed decorating an evergreen tree by the Illustrated London News, inspiring the rest of the country to get into the swing. The Christmas confluence continued with the publication of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, that famous story of holiday specters that seamlessly encapsulates the ghoulishness of Christmas. It was the perfect atmosphere for Cole to unleash his Christmas cards upon a merry populace. They sold for one shilling a piece, and by 1880, the Christmas tidings industry had produced 11.5 million cards.
Victorian Christmas cards were bonkers
In the 19th century, Christmas wasn't as festive and warm as it is today. It was a time when shaking hands with the wrong person wasn't an uncommon death sentence, so dark humor was woven throughout Victorian culture, and that extended to the designs of their Christmas cards. Some of the surviving designs feature such diverse but equally horrifying imagery as children being kidnapped, frogs slicing one another up, and dead birds. One of the most well-known Victorian cards features a dead robin alongside the phrase "May yours be a joyful Christmas," which would be considered a threat these days.
Rising literacy rates helped popularize the cards
It's doubtful that Christmas cards could have become so commonplace so quickly had it not been for the sudden increase of people from all walks of life learning to read. With literacy rates on the rise, people could send cards to one another without worrying that their friends wouldn’t know how to read them. A booming economy, likely helped along by all the holiday festivities, meant that Victorians also had more money to burn, so it wasn't out of the question to spend a couple of pennies on cards. Christmas cards went from a niche seasonal accoutrement to a must-have purchase for the people of London.
Mass production in the 1860s created millions of cards
By 1860, hectograph printing had made it relatively easy for anyone to copy anything, leading to the mass-market printing of Christmas cards. By the 1870s, the cost of printing dozens of cards at a time was so inexpensive that it was stupid not to go into the Christmas card business. About three decades after Sir Henry Cole created the Christmas card to keep his adoring public happy, companies across England were selling the cards. Around the same time, German immigrant Louis Prang started manufacturing Christmas cards in America through a lithograph company he ran in Boston.
Many designs were based on folklore
So many of the strange designs of Victorian-era Christmas cards harken back to English folklore. Robins, like the one featured on one of the most morbid Victorian Christmas cards, was once considered a sacred species. Designs featuring dead animals may have also served the purpose of creating sympathy for the underprivileged, those who were forced to sleep in the cold every night while so many other families had warm beds. According to Penne Restadt, author of Christmas in America, many of the more magical illustrations were related to the culture's beliefs about the mystical elements of the universe. He said:
I believe the cultural interest in fairies, secret places, and strange creatures that developed, maybe beginning with seances, elves, and so on, in the Victorian era may have something to do with some of the fantastical Christmas cards.
Victorians were more festive, not morbid
Stephanie Boydell, curator of special collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, notes that Victorian Christmas cards look strange to modern eyes because we have different sensibilities. At the time, Christmas wasn't about the Christian tradition of the birth of Jesus in a manger; it was more about partying with your friends and family. Boydell explained:
They're only odd to our eyes. The Victorians had a different idea to what Christmas was about---not particularly Christian, but a time of good humor. You may find a mouse riding a lobster strange---I find it funny. It's horses for courses.
Tags: Christmas | England | victorian era
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