Christmas Cards and the Loss of Christmas

Christmas cards first appeared in 1843 when a civil servant named Sir Henry Cole decided he was too busy to send individual greetings to his business colleagues, family, and friends. Instead he decided to seek out his friend, a painter named John Callcott Horsley. Cole asked Horsley to create him a card with a brief greeting that he could mail to colleagues, family, and friends.

The result was the world’s first commercially produced Christmas card. It was a triptych, with the two side panels. The center panel depicted three generations of family gathered for Christmas dinner, and both side panels showed charitable scenes.

The first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nearly forty years later in 1882, some people claimed Christmas cards no longer represented Christmas of long ago and that Victorian Christmas cards celebrating the holiday had lost Christmas’s original meaning. To demonstrate this, The Graphic wrote an article about the Christmas card industry. Here is their view verbatim:

“The Christmas Card industry becomes of greater importance year by year. Every available reproductive process, from wood and steel engraving, and etching, to colour printing, chromo-lithography, and photography, is now pressed into service, with the results which, in many cases, are beautiful enough. In the demand for novelties which the Christmas Card trade stimulates, there has been a very noticeable tendency to depart more and more from ancient ideals. Many of the cards now published have no suggestion whatever of yule, of blazing logs, of red noses, or corpulent puddings and impossible joints of beef. All that has changed, and instead of the rude jollity, and the gross delights of the gourmand, we are now invited to contemplate sweetly-shaped little girls innocent of clothing, bright summer landscapes, or sea-scenes, suggestive of long July days. This may be interesting, but it is not Christmas.

Victorian Christmas Cards Showing Children, Author's Collection

Victorian Christmas cards showing children. Author’s collection.

These tendencies are evident in the collection of cards issued by Messers W.A. Mansell and Co. Almost all the cards of this firm have a claim to consideration on the ground of their prettiness and good taste, and they introduce several novelties. Of these, the most noticeable are some natural ferns, seaweed, and flowers, gracefully arranged on good cards. The collection includes, besides these, several sets of engraving and etching, done up in portfolios. These are intended to be sent as they stand, and the theory is that they are to form acceptable presents, “charming Christmas souvenirs,” and must not be regarded as “cards of ephemeral character only.”

Messrs, Mansell’s collection includes also “sweet landscapes, aesthetes, comical creatures, beautiful faces, gelatine cards,” and many others. — From Messrs Davidson Brothers we have received a creditable set of cards, consisting chiefly of groups of flowers. — Messrs Hildesheimer and Faulkner have a well-deserved reputation for the manufacture of Christmas cards, and from their catalogue we gather that they have offered 5,000l. as prizes for good designs, Messrs. Millais, Marcus Stone, and Storey being the judges.

Victorians Cards Celebrating the Christmas Season with Flowers, Horse Racing, Birds, and a Child with Swans

Victorians cards celebrating the Christmas season with flowers, horse racing, birds, and a child with swans. Author’s collection.

If the cards before us are a fair selection from the prize designs it is quite certain that the designers earned their money very easily. While the designs are fair, and are in many cases well printed, they are all hopelessly convention; seaweed, roses, and angels, cats, dogs, and children, being the raw material which is worked up over and over again. — Messrs. Eyre and Spottiswoode present us with a most varied collection, many of them of almost faultless execution, but all open to the same charge of conventionality. — Finally we must mention the cards of Mr. Arthur Ackermann, who sends us some specimens of Prang’s American cards. Some of the latter are as beautiful as anything if the kind yet made. The colouring is exquisite, and the designs original.”

“Christmas Cards,” in The Graphic, 18 November 1882.

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