A Victorian Christmas

I have really enjoyed my internship at Abbey House Museum where I have been cataloguing many of the items within the ephemera collection. I have been updating records of greetings cards and I became particularly interested in the vast and varied collection of Christmas cards.
With thousands of Christmas cards produced and sent every year I was curious to learn about the history of the humble Christmas card. I discovered that the first Christmas card was sent in December 1843. It was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole as an alternative to the usual Christmas letter and as a way of offering seasonal greetings without having to write lots of individual personal messages. The trend of sending Christmas cards soon became popular in the nineteenth century. Cards varied in shape, size and material, and they often featured flowers, children and winter scenes. Many were highly elaborate, and were often gilded, embossed, had fancy fringes, satin inserts, fold-outs, padded sachets, and paper lace features.
My favourite design that I have come across are traditional cards that feature intricate paper lace with painted flower panels that fold-out; quite different from the Christmas cards we find today. Dating from the 1870s, this example of a Victorian Christmas card features intricate paper lace, a chromolithographic printed oval tab with an image of lily of the valley and violets, that folds out to reveal the following Christmas verse:

Time of pleasure

and of mirth
Time when friends abound
Every blessing upon earth
In your home be found

It was also interesting to find out why robins were a popular image of many Victorian Christmas cards. Due to their red uniforms, the postmen who delivered Christmas cards were often nicknamed ‘robins’ and so the image became incorporated into designs.

Dating from circa 1900, this Christmas leaf-shaped card includes a hand-painted robin design, and interestingly is made out celluloid, with an intricate cut-out border.

I’ve enjoyed looking at the elaborate and varied Christmas cards that were designed in Victorian Britain, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to broaden my museum experience through an internship at Abbey House Museum.
Posted by Nicola, but written by Emily Ironmonger, Leeds Museums and Galleries Intern 2011

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