Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Holidays - the Christmas card


The spirit of good fellowship which the Christmas festivities engender among every class may fairly be taken as one of the best results of this ever popular and welcome season. It may be, of course, ho true to a certain extent that the universal practice of wishing one another the compliments of the season is followed in many cases out of mere conventional necessity, but, on the other hand, there can be no doubt that this wholesome custom has boon more frequently the happy means of ending strifes, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family and neighbourly ties in all conditions of life. In this respect the Christmas card undoubtedly fulfils a high end, for cheap postage has constituted it almost exclusively the modern method of conveying Christmas wishes and the increasing popularity of the custom every year is for this reason, if for no other, a matter for congratulation.
    Although the custom is essentially an English one the original source of the idea may probably be traced to the illuminated block books of Germany and the missal paintings of the monks, and it is said to have sprung more immediately out of the beautifully illustrated menus so common to all continental countries. It is probable, however, so far as this country is concerned, that we took the initiative in this direction from France where New Year's cards were popular long before either Christmas or Easter cards were known here, but since the idea took root in this country a. new and growing trade has speedily sprung up. Christmas cards, in the form of little etchings, have been seen which wore executed as early as 1817, but they appear to h ave been done by an artist for private circulation among his friends. It was Mr. J. C. Horsley, R.A., who, in 1846, really designed the first card of this description and although less than 40 years have elapsed since then, the sale of Christmas cards, which in the early days of their use might be reckoned by the thousand, may now be I counted by the million.
    As many can no doubt remember the beginnings of this now popular custom were of the humblest. Cheap images of the robin redbreast or the dove, and simple colour prints of flowers conveying the compliments of the season were among the most familiar, while Old Father Christmas, depicted as he always is amid peace and plenty was also popular then as he now is. Nor indeed, we are happy to note, is that feathered favourite the cock- robin altogether absent from the designs of the present day and, so far as can be judged, he does not seem likely awhile to lose his favoured hold up on the popular mind and sentiment. Beyond such exceptions, however, it is to be feared that the simple and inexpensive trifles that did their duty well enough some 30 years ago are fast passing away and surrendering their positions to the higher claims of art. Popular requirements nowadays insist that the Christmas card shall possess some thing of art in its design and with this demand manufacturers have of course to comply. Prize exhibition and competitions with such judges as Mr. H. S. Marks, RA., Mr. G. H. Boughton, ARA, andSir Coutts Lindsay have been the natural result of this development of national taste for art and the result has been of course that some really artistic designs and excellent workmanship are to be found among modern Christmas cards.
    Although the popular use of Christmas cards is no doubt condemned by stern philosophers of the unemotional school as so much worthless sentiment, it is not onl y, as we have indicated, productive of considerable moral benefit, but it also works, in operation, a substantial good by the development of a new department of art. It has created quite a new trade, and has opened up a. new field of labour for artists, lithographers, engravers, printers, ink and pasteboard makers, and several other trade classes. The work, too, is perennial, and does not occur only at one particular season of the year. All the year round brain are at work devising new designs and inventing novelties, not only as regards Christmas cards, but also in respect of those used at Easter and other festive occasions, such as birthdays, &c., the use of which appears to be extending concurrently with the Christmas custom. The very cheap Christmas cards come, it is true, from Germany, where they can be produced at a much cheaper rate, but all the more artistic and more highly-finished cards are the result of English workmanship. Science and mechanics, too, play an important part in this work. The colour properties best suited to the requirements for manufacturing the necessary printing ink have had to be discovered, special sorts of pa per to be made, and photography, lithography, and every available form of reproductive process capable of being dealt with by the printing machine, has had to be resorted to. Nor must we forget the host of trained and skilled workpeople required for successfully carrying out the necessary operations. And last, but by no means least, let us remember the poet, who, as can be imagined, has his inventive faculties well tested in providing Christmas sentiment for the million and more individuals, each with a taste of his own.
    It is a not unpleasant result of the extensive use of Christmas cards that the revenue of the country is considerably benefited by the custom, thus indirectly reducing taxation. It would be interesting to know with some certainty how many cards and Christmas letters pass through the post at this season, but unfortunately it can only be ascertained that nearly 14 million letters and packets, together with 3 tons of registered letters, passed through the chief office last Christmas, thus adding £58,000 to the revenue. Perhaps the chief cause of this wondrous popularity is that Christmas cards are sold at a range of prices calculated to meet any pocket. The poor may indulge in art to the extent of one halfpenny - nay, even less, we believe - the rich, if so minded, may spend five guineas on a single card. It is, of course, a necessary condition of the custom, so long as it is to maintain its present ascendancy, that popular requirements should be studied in every respect, but we are inclined to think that at the present time the more artistic and highly- finished cards, and consequently more expensive, find oven a readier sale than those of a cheaper description. It is open to question, perhaps, whether the ultimate value or benefit of such expensive gewgaws is proportionate to their cost; but, on the other hand, we must remember that the extensive use of artistic cards has stimulated this class of trade and manufacture and has, indeed, created a new and rapidly-expanding field of enterprise for which, in these days of over-stocked markets, there is really much cause to be thankful.

The Times, 25 December, 1883

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