Christmas Cards, Trees and Crackers

In 1843, one Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and later the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was late delivering his ‘duty letters’ and asked a friend, Sir John Calcott Horsley R.A. to design a special card that he could send instead. This portrayed a family group drinking wine, pictures showing acts of charity, framed by a rustic bower, and bearing the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. Sir Henry Cole also devised the perforated stamp and the concept of the postcard.

In 1846 a thousand of these were produced at a cost of 1/- each and the Christmas card became an established means of giving Christmas greetings. In 1848, one Mr Dobson produced a card depicting ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ and sold thousands and in the same year W M Egley created an etching which had holly, mistletoe, cherubs and a Harlequin and Columbine from pantomime. The advent of the penny post in 1840 had changed the onus of payment from the recipient to the sender, so it became a pleasure to receive a letter rather than an unwelcome missive for which poorer people needed to pay.

Mass production was well under way by the 1860’s and cards were sold in sheets of 12, to be cut apart much like postage stamps and the size of visiting cards. Companies offering to deliver circulars at rates as low as a farthing forced the Post Office, in 1870, to create a halfpenny post and this served to increase the popularity of sending Christmas cards.

In 1880, Raphael and Tuck began to produce a wide range of cards in different shapes, some of which were ‘pop-ups’ through clever folding and some bejewelled, embossed and ever more elaborate. In the heyday of Victorian cards, there were over 200,000 different designs available by 1895. One company offered a prize of £10,000 for the best design and commissioned drawings by well-known artists. Tennyson was offered £1000 to write a short verse and Christina Rossetti and George Eliot derived income from the practice during their careers.

The Christmas tree began to make its appearance in the 1820’s but its real boost in popularity came after an article in the Illustrated London News in 1848 showed a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition brought from Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany, Soon this became the fashion in almost every home where they were decorated with candles, sweets, fruit and small gifts. These gifts gradually enlarged and found their way to the foot of the tree as they were too big to be borne by the branches. Christmas trees were actually popular in America before they became so in Britain, possibly because the troops of George III fighting against Washington’s men set them up or, more likely, there were many immigrant German families who took the tradition with them.

In 1840, British confectioner, Tom Smith, saw bonbons (sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper) on a trip to Paris and began to make and sell them in Britain. Sales were reasonable but not spectacular, and he struggled for several years to find an idea to popularise them.

In 1846 he made a coloured paper wrapper filled with sweets which could be pulled apart from both ends with the sweets spilling out. In the early 1850’s, since these ‘bonbons’ were generally given by young men to their sweethearts, he began inserting a motto or a short love poem which gradually led, by the 1930’s, to the cringe-worthy jokes which we have today.

In about 1860, sitting in front of an open fire, Tom heard the wood crackling and the concept of creating something which made a loud noise was born. He inserted two strips of overlapping paper impregnated with chemicals which created a bang when friction was applied and invented the cracker. His final move, to compete with imitators, was to add a small surprise gift. The traditional paper crown was added around 1900 and related back to the Twelfth Night king and queen of centuries earlier. Crackers were originally called ‘cosaques’ as they were reminiscent of the Russian soldiers who raced around on horseback excitedly firing off their guns.

Special thanks to CovSoc member Brian Stote for another interesting Christmas article.

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