Visions of Sugar Plums: Victorian Christmas Cards

In this blog post I share the transcript of my Pavilion Tale on ‘Visions of Sugar Plums: Victorian Christmas Cards’, which took place at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton on Thursday 29 November 2018. If you are interested in seeing any of the cards mentioned in my talk, please do let me know, and I’ll be happy to show them to you. You can also see the cards by watching the Facebook live video of my Pavilion Tale on the Brighton Museums Facebook page

Good afternoon and welcome to our very Christmassy-looking Music Room. Today is the first in our festive-themed Pavilion Tales here at the Royal Pavilion. My name is Naomi and I am one of the Visitor Services Officers here at Brighton Museums. I am very pleased to be part of this series of talks and today I will be speaking about ‘Visions of Sugar Plums: Victorian Christmas Cards’. I’ll be giving some potted history of the nineteenth century Christmas card, and then we will take a look at some of the weird and wonderful Christmas cards that are in the Brighton Museums collections. At the end of my talk you are very welcome to ask questions and come and have a closer look at some of the cards I have on the table here.

The first recorded Christmas card was sent from Michael Maier to James I and Henry Frederick, the Prince of Wales, in 1611, and incorporated Rosicrucian imagery, with the greeting being laid out in the form of a rose. However, this was one individual card, and Maier did not make the Christmas card popular amongst the British public. We have to fast forward just over two centuries to the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Here we have a number of contenders for the title of ‘inventor of the Christmas Card as we know it’. The first is W C T Dobson a member of the Royal Academy, who sent a Christmas sketch to a friend in 1844, and the following year reproduced it in lithograph and sent it to all of his friends, family, and acquaintances. The second is William Maw Egley, who produced a Christmas card that we would recognise in 1843 – but the signature is unclear and could say 1848. And there is also the Reverend Edward Bradley, who created a Christmas card for friends.

But none of these contenders created a card for commercial sale; this honour, and the winner of the title ‘inventor of the Christmas Card as we know it’, is Sir Henry Cole. Between working at the Public record Office, studying watercolour painting, exhibiting sketches at the Royal Academy, promoting postal reform, editing the Post Circular, and assisting with the establishment of the Penny Post, Cole found that he was always too busy to write proper letters to his friends at Christmas time. So in 1843, he commissioned the artist John Calcott Horsley of the Royal Academy of Arts to develop a decorated ‘hasty-note’ to send out in the post. Initially, Cole had 1,050 printed, and sent the many leftovers to be sold at a stationers shop on Old Bond Street, London.

Cole commissioned the Christmas card the same year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, but unlike Dickens’ novel, Cole’s commercial Christmas cards were not an immediate hit. In 1846, Cole decided to publish his Christmas card on a larger commercial scale, printing two batches of 2,050 cards. The cards were advertised with the slogan ‘first published, a Christmas congratulations card; or picture emblematical of old English festivity to perpetuate kind recollections between dear friends’. Each card was put on sale for one shilling each at Felix Summerly’s Treasure House on Bond Street, London. To give an idea of prices and wages, common labourers earnt, on average, 3s. 9d. a week, so this particular card was out of the reach of the lowest earners in Victorian society.

Henry Cole’s card depicts three generations of one family raising a toast to the recipient of the card. It is a narrative of Christmas pleasure; in this narrative, the children are oblivious to the viewer, the wives are modest, and the husbands look out from the card and hold our gaze. This image makes us think about the comforts of family during the festive season. The layout of Cole’s Christmas Card is reminiscent of a medieval triptych; on either side of the central image are scenes of charity, with food and clothing being given to the poor. The two side panels are called ‘Clothing the Naked’ and ‘Feeding the Hungry’.

After the abolishment of paper duties in 1861 – commonly known as the ‘Taxes on Knowledge’ – it was possible for companies to mass produce Christmas cards. For example, the publisher Prang and Mayer, who began publishing Christmas greetings cards in 1873, were publishing five million Christmas cards each year by 1880. Mass production and the removal of taxes on paper brought down the price of the card – and the price of postage, which dropped to half a penny. Early British Christmas cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favouring flowers, fairies, and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of spring. Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were popular, as were increasingly elaborate shapes, decorations and materials. In some ways the Victorians saw Christmas in a similar way to us today: not as a particularly Christian celebration, but as a time of good humour and fun. Indeed, in his 1836 The Book of Christmas, the author Thomas Kibble Hervey described Christmas day as ‘one of brightened spirits and general congratulation’.

So, now to take a look at some of the Christmas cards from our collections…

Card: Cross with Lilies

This card shows a cross with some lilies tied to it, and has clear religious overtones. It is also a highly symbolic card. For example, in the Victorian language of flowers, the lily is a symbol of purity, chastity and virtue. The lily is often associated with the Virgin Mar and her role as Queen of the Angels. The lily features in depictions of the Annunciation, either in a vase or in the hands of the Archangel Gabriel. The Annunciation is the moment where the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she would conceive, and become the Mother of, Jesus, the Son of God. The white lily is also associated with Joseph, Mary’s husband. Today we associate lilies with death and funerals, and this is an interpretation that is not wholly inappropriate for this Christmas card. The combination of the cross shape, which symbolises the crucifixion of Jesus, and the lily, which can be seen as symbolic of death, would make the Victorian recipient think about their Christian faith. In particular their mind would be drawn to the joy surrounding Christmas and the birth of Jesus, as well as the death of Jesus on the cross.

Card: Leaf shape with depiction of a church

This card is one of the more elaborately shaped ones we have in the collections at Brighton Museums. The card is an elaborate leaf shape, and the image on it depicts a winter scene, including a church. The church reminds the recipient of their religious duties on Christmas day and throughout the Christmas season. The single star up at the top here would also enable the viewer to think about the Bible stories surrounding Christmas; in particular, it would make them think of the star that the Magi followed to Bethlehem. In the latter half of the nineteenth century most people would have owned a small pocket Bible like this one, and, after the Education Act of 1870, which raised the age of compulsory education to 11, most people would have been literate. This meant they able to read the story of the Nativity, or check the story if they were unsure of details. The inclusion of the star on this particular card might also make the recipient think of the new Christmas Carol, Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem, which had been written by the Episcopal minister Phillips Brooks in 1868 and set to music by his organist Lewis Redner in 1871. Stars are mentioned in the opening lines of the carol:

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by.

Card: Crescent moon, Church, and “Christmas” poem

This card also has religious overtones, the card it contains a poem called “Christmas” which is highly symbolic. The poem on the card reads:

When in your happiest mood you be

Let memory bring me back to thee

Though light may fail and billows roll

Hope brings the anchor to the soul.

The poem itself is a reference to Hebrews 6:19, which explains how ‘which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec’. This is symbolic of hope and expresses the security of the soul, tossed through waves of trouble and tempatation. Faith is an anchor to keep the recipient sure and steady against the storm of life. The crescent moon is also symbolic of the chastity of the Virgin Mary.

Card: “Toboggining”

This particular card has been sent from Canada in 1880, it was published by G W Clarke, whose company were sellers of “books, stationery, and fancy-goods’. The card has G W Clarke, Montreal printed on it, which is reminiscent of the eighteenth century trade card: the trade card is a small square card, just slightly larger than a modern visiting card. Trade cards were exchanged in social circles, and were distributed to clients and potential customers, basically a form of decorative, personalised advertising. Canada became independent from Britain in 1867, and this card is dated 1880, so in some ways Canadian independence would still have been a topical subject, open for discussion. It depicts people tobogganing down a snowy slope. The toboggan is a traditional form of transport used by the Innu and Cree of Northern Canada, and was also used in recreation, as we see here. So a scene like this may have been new or novel to the late nineteenth century recipient. It would have made the recipient think about how Christmas is celebrated elsewhere – what Christmas and winter activities did people in other countries take part in?

Cards: Japanese-themed

Similarly these two Japanese themed Christmas cards allow the recipient to think about Christmas – and winter – in other parts of the world. In both card we see a representation of a woman wearing a kimono; one depiction seems more Japanese in style and even has Japanese script on the bottom. Both are clear representations of a style called ‘Japonisme’, a term that describes the craze for Japanese art and culture in the West, a craze that followed the opening of Japan to the West after the convention of Kanagawa in 1853. After 1853 there was a craze for Japanese artefacts and supply could not keep up with demand. Much like the Chinoiserie style we see here in the Royal Pavilion, which is a western approximation of Chinese art and culture, japonisme is a western interpretation of Japanese art and culture. Japanese art and culture greatly affected art and culture in the West, in particular it influenced artistic styles like the aesthetic movement and art nouveau, as well as artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Christopher Dresser, and William Godwin.

I have more examples of Christmas cards from our collections here on the table, including ones with religious symbolism. For example there is this one of two donkeys, which would have reminded the recipient of the donkey that carried the Virgin Mary on the escape to Egypt. There is also this rather amusing one, where ‘Pretty Polly’ the grey parrot is wishing us a Merry Christmas. And among some of the weirder ones in the collections, we have a frog standing on a mushroom, feeding another frog a fly. Please do come up and have a look at the Christmas cards and if you have any questions, feel free to ask!

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