The Victorian Christmas card: A Brief History
Christmas is one of the most important festivals in the religious calendar - yet before the 19th century, it wasn't celebrated on a wide scale. This is hard to imagine today, considering the amount of planning and expense that goes into festive celebrations, but it wasn't even considered a public holiday by some businesses!
This all changed as the 19th century dawned and the transformation occurred very quickly, in all sectors of society. By the end of the 1800s, Christmas had already taken on the form that people recognise today and had become the biggest celebration of the year.
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Many people attribute the changes to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A drawing of them celebrating with their children around a Christmas tree prompted the public to follow the royal family's lead. The German-born prince was following the traditions he had enjoyed during his own childhood.
The drawing was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848 and soon, people across the land were putting up their own Christmas trees, decorated with candles, fruit, sweets, homemade decorations and small gifts.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards began in 1843, thanks to senior civil servant Sir Henry Cole. The wealthy businessman wished to design a card that he could send to business colleagues and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas.
First Christmas cards
His idea of Christmas cards was soon adopted by people of all social classes across Britain. He commissioned an artist to design a card for him. The festive drawing showed a group of people enjoying Christmas dinner around the table and contained a seasonal greeting.
Cole, who had helped create the Public Records Office, became known as the man who invented commercial Christmas cards, as he began selling the cards at one shilling each three years later. The first run of 1,000 cards, containing the same picture as his first Christmas cards, went on sale in 1846.
They were sold only at the exclusive Bond Street store, Felix Summerly's Treasure House, in London that year. This was much too expensive for ordinary people, but they wished to follow the tradition.
As a result, many children began making their own Christmas cards. This tradition of handmade Christmas cards has continued to this day and it's something that younger children often do in school as a class activity.
In the 19th century (the age of industrialisation), the technology for colour printing was becoming more widely available. This caused the price of Christmas cards to drop, as the production costs reduced. The Christmas card industry began to take off.
By the 1880s, sending greetings cards had become popular across the nation. In 1880 alone, an estimated 11.5 million cards were sent through the post! This meant the commercialisation of Christmas was underway, although to maintain the personal element, making Christmas cards remained popular.
Early Christmas card pictures included festive scenes, such as the family sitting down together to enjoy Christmas Day and the ever-popular and iconic symbol of Christmas, the robin redbreast.
While the family Christmas scene and religious connections were self-explanatory, the reason that robins started appearing on cards related to the postal service. Robins first appeared on Christmas cards in the 1880s, when the uniform of the Royal Mail postmen included smart bright red coats.
In those days, red was considered a regal colour, with links to the Royal family and the British flag. The early postmen were nicknamed "robins" because their coats were the same colour as the robin redbreast. At Christmas time, householders would eagerly wait for the postman or "robin" as he brought their greeting cards from loved ones.
Christmas cards began to carry illustrations of the cheerful postman, resplendent in his red jacket, delivering cards. This gave artists the idea of drawing an actual robin, carrying Christmas cards in its beak, as a new card design.
This proved popular very quickly and in a tradition that has continued into the 21st century, the robin soon became a symbol of Christmas.
In the early 2000s, it was feared the internet may kill off the old-fashioned paper Christmas cards, although once the initial hype surrounding e-cards faded, it became apparent that nothing would replace the sentimental tradition of receiving a personalised Christmas card through the post.
Today, around 900 million Christmas cards are sent each year in the UK. On average, each person sends 16 Christmas cards. They make up around 45% of all greeting card sales in Britain. The most popular greeting is a simple "Merry Christmas", appearing on 53% of cards.
The future of paper Christmas cards seems secure, as a survey by Royal Mail in 2015 revealed 75% of UK residents would prefer to receive a traditional Christmas card, rather than an e-card or a greeting on social media. Most said they appreciated the extra effort the sender went to, as this showed how much they cared. Hear, hear!
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