The Maughan Library
Not a flake of snow or a plump robin to be seen in the picture above, but this grand building in Chancery Lane is probably the birth place of the modern Christmas card. 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 and the birth of the Penny Post made posting a letter an everyday occurrence for the major part of the population.
Thanks to the etiquette of the time that grew up around receiving a letter, the new system posed a problem for Victorians. It was considered incredibly rude to ignore a letter for too long before responding to it, so those who had been blessed with many friends soon found that their correspondence had become a second job.
Sir Henry Cole
One such person was Sir Henry Cole a British civil servant and inventor who worked in what is now the Maughan Library when it was the Public Records Office in the 19th century. Apparently, up to his neck in unanswered correspondence one festive season Cole commissioned artist J.C. Horsley to illustrate 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 seems to have been just a little ahead of his time as far as our modern Christmas is concerned. He continued to send these cards for several years and obviously some of those who received them did the same. In 1848 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured in the Illustrated London News decorating their Christmas tree and from then on the Victorians went Christmas crazy. It was the perfect atmosphere for Cole to unleash his Christmas cards upon the merry populace. They sold for one shilling a piece, and by 1880, the Christmas tidings industry had produced 11.5 million cards.
As with so many things, the Victorians could be a little strange to our eyes and as the cards became more popular with the masses the illustrators needed to come up with different designs to try and catch the prospective buyers eye. The modern icons, Father Christmas, robins, wise men and stars were not readily recognisable to the Victorians and so in some cases the images that these early cards portrayed were frankly quite bizarre.
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone who has read this blog over the past year a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and I’ll leave you with a selection of some of these rather disturbing Christmas cards.