Since the beginning, the Christmas card has reflected society’s view of Christmas and all the related traditions–and much more. So it’s no surprise that during the Victorian era, Christmas cards reflected the explosion in creativity among writers and artists.
The Christmas card was actually born amid the Victorian era, which started in the 1830s in England. Hard to believe, but before Queen Victoria’s reign started in 1837, few people in Britain knew anything about Santa Claus, Christmas cards or even a work holiday.
The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era transformed Christmas forever. The Victorian era was a time of great growth of the cities, expanding economies, education reform and the rise of a new middle class (the term was meant to describe those people below the aristocracy but above the workers). There was a political shift as the new middle class challenged aristocratic privilege and corruption. The new urban middle-class strove to establish a society based on merit rather than on one’s birth. This may not seem like a big deal today but in the mid 1800s, it was almost revolutionary. New businesses and industry arose, and new business opportunities exploded.
This was ripe ground for the spread of the Christmas card. According to Victorian Christmas, “the Christmas card publishing industry
created unheard of opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers. In 1880 the Christmas card had a new birth, for it was then that a great London firm offered five hundred guineas in prizes for the most artistic designs. Many of the great artists of the day responded with their best ideas..”
Writers, too, got in on the act. “…Many well-known writers were not above this profitable work of creating greeting cards. Thousands of pounds were spent in finding the right poems and suitable Christmas sentiments, until at last these Yuletide offerings reached the climax of their literary and artistic excellence.”
The result was a rich array of cards with a wide range of themes (nature was a big one; also, dolls and little girls, courting couples, feasts, animals, flowers, and winter scenes) The cards came in different sizes, shapes and colors. The Amazing Facts website points out that, Victorian Christmas Cards, “were considerably more elaborate than today’s, often adorned with layers of lace, silk fringes, tassels, ribbons, dried flowers, satin, or mother of pearl. Some were glass frosted. One surviving Victorian card consisted of 750 pieces of material stitched together.”The new style was secular, with an occasional angel thrown in for a bit of religious spice. In a sense, many cards were actually collages, for a drawing of a girl, for instance, a piece of satin might serve as a dress. Sometimes the writers got carried away with their prose. Example: “When snow lies at Christmas and Grandpa shivers-the children are bright; they look forward to feeding the chickens in spring.” (Amazing Facts)