Chicks, cigars and wine-drinking toddlers: A Victorian Christmas

  • by Vickie Bennett, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

In the Art Library we currently have one of our favourite handmade items on display to coincide with our charity Christmas card shop – the ‘Victorian Scrapbook’ of scraps and greetings cards. A donation to the library in the 1990’s, and a visual feast for any fan of illustration and typography, not a lot is actually known about the scrapbook’s origins, but messages in the cards are addressed to an Ethel Mills, her husband Edwin and son John.

Seasonal and sentimental imagery decorate each page, alongside cards from friends and relatives, and it’s obvious that a lot of time and energy has been poured into its meticulous curation, which dates back to the late 19th century. Scrapbooking was a common pastime for Victorian women and girls, and was a way of collating sentimental bits and pieces into one place. The books from this era include titbits of personal value, including invitations to social gatherings and events, or school merit slips and similar accolades. They were shown to friends and family as a measure of achievement and reminiscence.

The commercial potential of scrapbooking was capitalised on as colour printing methods advanced in the late 19th Century, and illustrative scraps and die-cuts then began to be produced and sold solely for scrapbooking purposes. The art of scrapbooking was able to become more sophisticated, as pages that would have consisted of a few pieces could now be curated from a mixture of treasured items and bought images, creating books filled to the brim with colourful ornamentation. The books allowed their makers to show self-expression and ownership in how they themed and curated the layout and imagery inside, picking which parts of their life they wanted to remember and others to see – much in the same way we curate our output on social media today. Ethel must have been a fan of animals, as her pages are filled with them.

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The Christmas cards inside Ethel’s scrapbook are lovely, but strangely unseasonable. The book exists in a time where the commerciality of Christmas had begun, but the snow and Santa that we associate with the holidays had not yet been fully established. Victorian Santa bears as much likeness to the Green Man as he does with today’s red-suited gift giver – appearing in a green or red cloth cap with a wreath of ivy or bunch of holly at each ear.

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The card designs range from ‘traditional’ scenes of snow and robins, to motifs we’d now consider too spring-like for Christmas, such as baby chicks and cherry blossom. Cigars, hay bales, and swan-riding angels also feature – all printed on small, delicate slips of paper with hand-penned best wishes.

The tradition of sending Christmas cards began a few decades earlier, with the first commercial card commissioned by civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole apparently came up with the idea as a way of saving time – a quick posted greeting as opposed to writing letters to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It was perhaps a shrewd invention, as he had helped to introduce the Penny Post a few years prior, which created affordable postage for the working classes. Nonetheless, by the time Ethel’s scrapbook was being collated, the sending of cards had become so popular that over 12 million were being produced in Britain each year.

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Print showing the original colouring of Cole’s card. From ‘Fifty Years Of Public Work’ vol.2 by Cole. Available from the Information & Research library.

Cole’s first Christmas card was limited to a run of just 1000, each lithograph printed and then hand coloured. Illustrated by artist John Horsley, the design features a family eating together, with panels at the side promoting charitable acts, such as feeding the poor. There was controversy surrounding the card when it was released, as it shows a child being given a cup of wine! The cards are extremely hard to come by today, with the last one at auction fetching £22,500, and supposedly only a dozen still existing. There is one currently on display at the V&A, as part of a Victorian Christmas Card exhibition until 5th January 2017.

The pages of Ethel’s book have turned acidic and brittle, and the edges are crumbling away. Thumbing carefully through the pages, it’s hard not to get bowled over by the sentimentality of the cheerful imagery and delicate Christmas greetings. The good news is that the Scrapbook will be digitised next year, so we can continue to appreciate it as a source of social and design history, and charming beauty.

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