Despite spending a lot of my life online, I still look forward at this time of year to getting Christmas cards through the post. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – only the real, physical thing will do for me. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs about the postman, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.
Wrighton: The Postman’s Knock (publ. 1855)
The first thing that strikes me, is how smart he looks. He could be any city clerk in his waistcoat and top hat, apart from his red coat. The rest of the front cover is black and white with a single tint, but the all-important coat is proudly displayed in all its bright red glory. He must have really stood out in the crowd.
In 1839, the imposition of a uniform penny charge for sending post led to greater usage, which then also led to the first pillar boxes in the 1850s. Later in the century, London residents could expect several collections and deliveries a day, almost as good as email …
The song is dedicated to Rowland Hill , the man usually credited with the reform of the postal system into something we’d recognise today. He allowed pre-payment by the sender (rather than payment on delivery) through what became adhesive postage stamps. As you’d expect with a music hall song, it is hardly profound or informative, but it does give an idea of how quickly the postman had become part of the everyday landscape in the capital, at least.
An official at the Post Office, Henry Cole, was responsible for starting the fashion for sending Christmas cards . It was partly a publicity ploy to get more people to use the new one penny postal service. It was successful – from the 1860s onwards, it gradually became a significant part of the British Christmas traditions.
Here at the Library of Birmingham, we have a large number of these cards in our collections. I shall be looking at just a few of them, selected from an online gallery we host.
Every good wish for your Christmas
I love this one – it is so bizarre, yet still appealing. What have four booted toads (frogs?), carrying pink umbrellas, got to do with Christmas? It reminds me of those very odd Victorian installations with duelling stuffed animals.
A merry Christmas
This is a cut-out of a fan attached to a card. I love the main part of the fan – so pretty – but the cat border, not so much. I’m not a great cat fan. Again there’s none of the imagery we normally associate with commercial Christmas cards.
The merry dance when dinner is done
This very pretty card is one of a series by the famous children’s illustrator Kate Greenaway . There’s such a wonderful sense of movement and joy. And the colours are lovely – vibrant and rich, without being loud or brash.
Farewell heat, and welcome frost!
This final card, with its quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is perhaps more what we’d expect from a Christmas card. A snowy scene with plenty going on, full of people (though no females). It’s a skating rink, whether natural or manufactured. The man in the green overcoat has the unenviable task of sweeping the snow off, so keeping the surface clean for the skaters. He partially obscures two people in the process of falling over.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Merry Christmas to one and all.