When London’s John Calcott Horsley invented the first Christmas card in 1843 as a favor to Henry Cole, neither man had any idea of the impact it would have in Britain and later in America. Even the early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a vogue which would soon pass. They operated on a quick turn basis and did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers.
The “trick card” was the most popular Christmas card of the Victorian era. While infinite in variety, it always featured some element of surprise. While seemingly simple at first glance, the turning of a page, the pulling of a string, or the moving of a lever would reveal the unexpected, showing the card to be more complex than first imagined.
Pull out flower cards were among the most treasured of trick cards. An example from 1870 is that of red, white and yellow roses encased in a fan shaped handle. Pull the silken thread dangling from the handle and the card opens to twice it’s size. Five separate rose petals come into view, each surrounded with lilies of the valley and imprinted with quotes from poets such as Wordsworth and Keats.
The design showed a happy family raising a festive glass as a toast to the recipient. Sadly, un-festive critics condemned the design – for promoting drunkenness.
The Christmas card then went into hibernation until 1862, when printers Charles Goodall came up with minimalist designs consisting of the words “A Merry Christmas”. Robins were added later, followed by holly and afterwards Little Red Riding Hood. After that it was downhill all the way: Wise Men, mangers, snowmen.
The backlash by real-life Scrooges began in 1871, with the first newspaper article asserting that the deluge of cards was delaying “legitimate correspondence”. Another Yuletide milestone was passed in 1873 when the Times personal column ran the first ad apologizing for “not sending Christmas cards this year”. And it was 120 years ago that the Post Office first begged us to “post early for Christmas”, but we still don’t take a blind bit of notice.