Season’s Greetings: The Victorian Origins of the Greeting Card

Sending Christmas cards to friends and family has become as much a part of the holiday season as decorating trees, wrapping gifts, and putting up holiday lights. We all love these traditions, but we don’t really think often about why we do them. They’re just something we do.

But the tradition of sending Christmas cards is one that stretches back to the early Victorian age (over 150 years ago), and its history is actually pretty fascinating. The first Christmas card wasn’t sent out of obligation or sentiment, but because its sender was rather panicked and stressed out during the holidays. (And honestly, who can’t relate?)

Henry Cole, a well-heeled educator and supporter of the arts in Victorian England, knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew him. Because advancements in the British postal system had made sending letters very easy and affordable, Cole had started getting inundated with correspondence from many of his friends and colleagues. By the time the holidays arrived in 1843 (coincidentally, the same year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published), Cole was worried that he wouldn’t have time to respond to everyone in his social circle and that people would find his lack of correspondence rude.

But Cole had an idea. He commissioned an artist friend by the name of J.C. Horsley to design and illustrate a scene that Cole described to him: A family gathered round a table, festively sipping wine as scenes of seasonal charity and acts of goodwill flanked each side. The postcard carried a simple, sendable message in the center, and a line in the bottom right allowed Cole to quickly personalize it with his signature.

And so the first holiday (post)card was born. Cole had 1,000 of these cards printed and mailed out, and only 21 have survived. But Cole’s creation sparked a tradition that has grown and evolved ever since.

Despite the success of Cole’s postcard idea, the card-sending tradition took several decades to really take off. For one thing, literacy rates were still catching up with printing advancements. But printing methods were also still relatively expensive, so few people or businesses could afford to commission and print cards to send out. This changed in the 1850s, when a British artist named George Baxter invented a printing method that allowed cheaper mass production of color prints.

Even after Baxter’s creation, though, there wasn’t really a clear roadmap for successful Christmas cards. Because there were neither traditional greetings nor familiar Christmas iconography in British or American culture, holiday postcards were kind of all over the place and reflected a wide range of themes and images. Victorian tastes in art and humor ran the full gamut, and some of those early postcards were just plain weird. Below is a sampling of some of the most eclectic.

Victorians were particularly interested in unique fantasy creatures and animals, and greeting cards of the era reflected these tastes and trends. After all, greeting cards and postcards were used more to delight and entertain than they were to fulfill an expected social obligation. The more visually interesting and unexpected, the better. This was especially evident in the two kinds of animal postcards that emerged at the time. Some were cute and relatively safe:

But some were more whimsical and outright peculiar:

Animals were far from the only cards embraced by the Victorians, though. By the late 1800s, the more familiar iconography of Christmas started taking shape. As a result, a number of distinct and consistent themes began to emerge. From the silly to the serious to the sacred, Victorian holiday greeting cards and postcards are a visual feast. Below are examples of some of the major categories these cards started falling into.

Santa:

Landscapes:

Kids and the Anticipation of Christmas:

Snowmen:

Angels and Spirituality:

Socialites and Aristocracy:

Winter Activities:

Victorian Ladies:

And, of course, a healthy mix of the weird and wonderful:

So as you choose, fill out, and mail your Christmas cards this year, remember that there’s no real right way to do it. The original card was created because its sender ran out of time, and the next few decades were a free-for-all of people sending a wide variety of strange, sweet, and silly greetings to the people closest to them. The important thing is to make your cards reflect yourself, the people to whom you’re sending them, or (ideally) both! Especially this year, just embrace what you love and share it with the people who mean the most to you.

[Note: Many of the designs in this post have been recreated and turned into Christmas cards by Victorian Trading Co. in recent years. To browse our vintage greeting card collection, please feel free to visit us here. And thank you for reading!]

Shiver and Shudder: The Victorian Roots of Gothic Horror Stories

When most people think of 19th-century Romantic and Victorian fiction, what usually comes to mind are the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters. And with good reason—those works are wonderfully rich and historically distinctive. But another type of British fiction emerged during the 19th century that often flies under the radar (or hides in the shadows, as it were). And as the the temperatures begin to fall, the days grow shorter, and Halloween approaches, it’s fitting to revisit the darker side of classic British fiction.

The Romantic period that began during in the late 1700s / early 1800s came on the heels of the Enlightenment—an age in which art and literature primarily focused on order and rationalism. But making a distinct departure, Romantic poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percey Shelley, and Lord Byron began writing about what Wordsworth called “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” These poets argued that the human mind is not a rational or orderly thing, and that art created by humans should be unshackled from neoclassical constraints and set free to reflect the tumultuous feelings people actually experience in their lives.

Romantic poetry and fiction are absolutely flooded with emotion. One need only read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to see how the tumult and tempest of love is played out in literary lives. But one of the most powerful human emotions is fear, and Romantic writers were not at all afraid of confronting it in their work. In fact, the Romantics and the Victorians were some of the first pioneers of gothic/horror fiction as a genre. Dante Alighieri had touched on it in The Inferno and Edgar Allan Poe began exploring Gothic themes in America, but it was the British writers who – more than any group – helped formalize a style of storytelling that took root in the dark corners of our minds and stayed there, haunting us ever since.

Below are five British novels/novellas written in the 1800s that laid the groundwork for modern horror and gothic fiction. Our current experience of Halloween owes a lot to these books and their writers, and it’s a pleasure to revisit and celebrate them during this haunted time of year.

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

Most people are familiar with the story: The brilliant young scientist Victor Frankenstein starts experimenting with dark and forbidden scientific techniques, and before long he has created a patchwork, hulking, grotesque monster. It’s a terrifying but fascinating look at a very 19th-century phenomenon: the frenetic, unwavering pursuit of science at all costs without ever stopping to question the moral consequences of those pursuits (at least until it’s too late).

The whole novel is phenomenal, but Mary Shelley’s true genius is in getting us to consider the question that’s at the heart of the book: Who’s more monstrous: The monster, or the man who created him?

Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888)

This gothic novella makes literal the split personalities we all hold buried inside us. Dr. Henry Jeckyll is the calm, collected, rational man who functions perfectly well and holds a respected, reputable place in British society. But when he ingests a chemical serum, Jeckyll turns into a brutish, violent lout who impulsively tramples and kills people. Hyde’s physical manifestation of Jeckyll’s internal rage is a dualistic trope that’s very familiar now (because of pop culture characters like The Hulk), but it’s easy to forget how new it was when Stevenson wrote his late-Victorian sci-fi horror story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1890)

More a psychological thriller than a pure horror story, Irish writer Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the supernatural effects of unbridled hedonism and sensuality. After a young, handsome socialite named Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, he begins exploring a self-indulgent, sensualistic lifestyle that – while turning his portrait likeness into something old and grotesque – ends up keeping Dorian young and beautiful. As long as he keeps embracing debauchery, Dorian is able to stay perpetually young.

The novella’s ending reveals a deeper layer of Dorian’s dilemma, and he ultimately has to confront the consequences of his choices. While not straightforward horror, the supernatural and Gothic flavor of Dorian Gray paved the way for modern psychological thrillers like Hellraiser and A Clockwork Orange, which explore many of the same themes.

The Invisible Man (H.G. Wells, 1897)

Set in late-Victorian West Sussex, England, H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man tells the story of a mysterious man named Griffin – a scientist who experiments with chemicals, turns himself invisible, and uses his newfound power to perpetrate random acts of brutality and violence. As much a mystery / science fiction story as a horror story, The Invisible Man predicted a question that’s been the basis of many genre stories in the last 40 or 50 years: When someone acquires superhuman abilities, what happens when they’re fundamentally flawed and broken people? The results have been explored in antihero stories as recent as Watchmen, The Boys, and Brightburn – all of which owe a big debt to Wells’ chilling tale.

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

Another late-Victorian classic, Dracula doesn’t need much introduction or explanation. It’s a masterpiece of horror and Gothic storytelling that’s probably more famous for what it spawned than what it originally was: A cautionary tale about the indulgence of human passions and desire. On the one hand, it’s very Romantic in that it explores the unbridled human excess and emotion. On the other hand, it’s very Victorian in that it warns of the consequences of these things.

Some of the novels on this list were influential in tangential ways. We know the story types and tropes without really being able to recall them immediately. Ultimately, though, Dracula spawned its own specific fiction type that has resonated clearly for over a century: Nosferatu, The Lost Boys, True Blood, Interview with the Vampire, and – yes, we have to acknowledge it – Twilight.

So there we have it: Five 19th-century British horror/Gothic/sci-fi novels that will make your Halloween week both smarter and spookier. You probably know the genres and the characters from modern Victorian-based stories like Penny Dreadful and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But why not round out your love of Romantic and Victorian culture by exploring the original dark places where things go bump in the night?

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