Christmas cards Christmas and greeting cards, which have been around for more than 100 years, are innovations for which we have to thank the Victorians. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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History of Christmas cards


 Christmas and greeting cards, which have been around for more than 100 years, are innovations for which we have to thank the Victorians.

 The Christmas tree was introduced into England in the 1840s by Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. At around the same time, the first commercial Christmas card was published. In 1843, Henry Cole (later Sir Henry) had the idea of sending a small printed card to his friends and suggested to his friend, J C Horsley, that he should design it.

 One thousand cards were printed and after Sir Henry had sent his quota to his friends, the rest were sold at one shilling each - almost a day's pay for a labourer.

 In 1848, William Maw Egley published a similar card, and in 1851 the firm of Petter and Galpin added Christmas cards to their list of Christmas stationery and prints. By the 1860s cards featured the now traditional robin and holly. Chromolithography and colour printing by the Baxter process reduced costs and cards soon became widely available.

 Early cards were generally small rectangular pasteboards, getting larger towards the 1870s. Folding cards did not appear until the 1880s, although concertina cards could be seen in the 1870s. Many makers copied Valentine card designs, keeping the lace inserts and cushioning and substituting season's greetings.

 Stage-coach travel was extremely difficult in winter, and two disasters in heavy snow in the 1830s inspired artists to produce engravings of coaches stranded in deep drifts. When Christmas card manufacturers began using these prints for their cards, the Post Office and coach proprietors sought to ban them. As the scene sold Christmas cards, manufacturers toned down the pictures, lessening the depth of snow and adding scenes of conviviality.

 Other greetings cards celebrated Easter and the New Year, often with a verse on the back, and followed the Christmas card format.

 The introduction of the picture postcard in 1894 gave manufacturers another string to their bow and seasonal and birthday cards were produced. Many cards were imported from the Continent and were embossed and gilded, or appliquéd with velvet, silk or tinsel.

 Victorian birthday cards were often decorated with bows. Cards for the family, with inscriptions such as 'To my dear Father', might very well have a neat deckle-edge.


 The variety of cards provides the collector with a wide choice. There is, for instance, a fine selection of novelty cards. Shaped and cut-out cards were issued in the 1890s. Christmas cards were in the shape of plum puddings, angels or stars, while greetings cards appeared as flowers, leaves, children, fans and so on. These cut-outs were often sprinkled with glitter made from glass or shell.

 Humorous punning cards were popular, such as those showing a turkey captioned 'Hope we shall meat at Christmas'. Cards from the 1870s show dancing Christmas puddings, and joints of meat or bottles of beer that have come to life.

 Animated or mechanical cards had tabs and strings that fitted into the design, transforming what appeared to be a simple folding card into a superb pop-up scene of flowers and butterflies, choirs of angels or cherubs, or flights of birds. Some cards were made with layers mounted on paper 'springs' opening out to give a three dimensional effect to the scene. Pulling a string or turning a disc revealed a 'hidden' message, or a present stowed under a Christmas tree.

 Some cards were in the shape of a cross, which folded flat to be inserted into an envelope. When unfolded, the card was seen to have a different picture on each section. Cardboard fans also folded flat for ease of delivery but when opened out they revealed pictures and verses on each division. Perhaps the most sought-after novelty cards are the 'hold-to-light' cards. These either had cut-out translucent layers which were visible when viewed against a light, or were 'transparencies' which revealed a scene that changed and/or changed colour when held up to the light.


 Early religious cards were rare, but in the 1890s Raphael Tuck produced a range featuring angels or the manger. These were of thick pasteboard, and some were mechanical, while others opened out to show Nativity scenes. The firm of Caswell specialized in cards with scenes from the Holy Land.

 Folded cards appeared in the 1880s. They were often elaborate with silk fringes and tassels and scalloped edges. Silk ribbons and bows came into vogue in the late 1880s.

 New Year cards often featured flowers - a prelude to the delights of spring while Easter was symbolized with lilies, eggs and rabbits.


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