By Michael Aitken, member ESA.
Today the custom of exchanging cards is one of the enduring ways in which we celebrate Christmas. They have a long and interesting history so it is perhaps surprising that they are not more widely collected.
It has been recorded that a form of woodcut greeting card was printed in Germany as early as the mid-15th C. There have been many claims for the creation of the first Christmas card and undoubtedly unrecorded hand-drawn examples would occasionally have been produced from early times.
However it is now generally accepted that the first printed Christmas card appeared in England in 1843. This was designed by John C. Horsley, on the inspiration of Henry Cole, a famous London figure of the 19th C. This card was lithographed and hand-coloured, and depicted a family enjoying their Christmas feast, with appropriate Christmas and New Year text. Nevertheless, even with the newly introduced cheap postage at that time, the sending of Christmas cards did not catch on quickly. By contrast Valentine cards were very popular throughout these years.
We have to wait until the 1870s, a time when inexpensive chromolithographic printing became widely available, for the large-scale production of Christmas cards. The elaborate Valentine card was going out of fashion and the public, no doubt, were looking for a new fad. In this period, the firms of Marcus Ward & Co, C.Goodall & Son, De La Rue, and Raphael Tuck all became famous for their Christmas card production in England. In the USA, the Boston printer, Louis Prang, became the Father of the American Christmas Card. And on the Continent, especially in Germany, cards were mass-produced for a world market.
All this activity had some ramifications for Australia. Naturally a few cards were being sent here from families and friends overseas. In no time Australia was importing large quantities of cards for local use. But, of course, these cards showed a Northern Hemisphere Christmas – plum puddings, snow scenes, holly and red robins. There was little that was appropriate for the Australian Christmas season. Therefore it was not surprising that a few people started to think in terms of Australian subjects. It was in these years that we were developing a sense of nationalism and patriotism as we approached the time of Federation.
I believe that I have established that the very first Christmas cards that we can call Australian are those by the Sydney artist, Helena Forde (nee Scott) showing native wildflowers. These superb cards were produced in a set of twelve in rich chromolithography.
They were advertised in the Sydney Mail on 9 November 1879. The logo of the Sydney publisher, Turner & Henderson, appears on each of these cards but they were almost certainly printed in London. Careful perusal of the likely pre-Christmas periodicals of that time strongly suggests that there were no earlier cards that could be regarded as Australian. In the following year, Helena’s sister, Harriet Scott, was responsible for a similar set of twelve. At about the same time, or a little later, the London firm of Marcus Ward & Co reproduced a set of fine Christmas cards showing scenes of Australian colonial life designed by Edward Roper.
This was truly the heyday of the Christmas card. Overseas Louis Prang in the US and Raphael Tuck in England ran public competitions, and offered prizes for the best Christmas card designs. In Australia, the printing company of John Sands, had been long established in Sydney, and in May 1881 his son, Robert, held a similar competition from which he selected 38 designs for printing with his newly imported chromolithographic press. The cards were advertised for sale in October and all had an Australian flavour. One of the winning cards showed a family picnicking in the bush with a little girl offering her Christmas pudding to a swaggie. Another design depicted a Cobb & Co coach and country pub. A number of cards showed scenes of Sydney Harbour after J.C.Hoyte.
Those cards of John Sands are often regarded as Australia’s first home grown Christmas cards. However another Sydney printing firm, Gibbs, Shallard & Co independently announced an offering of their own, and it appears that their cards were available by the end of September 1881. So although the Sands company was the first to have the idea of local production, Gibbs, Shallard & Co can equally be considered the progenitor of Australian Christmas card production. John Sands & Co. did not produce Christmas cards in the immediate subsequent years but they did resume later and have continued to be leaders in the industry today. Gibbs, Shallard & Co brought out a series each year until 1886 but a few years later suffered a devastating fire and went out of business altogether. Their cards were brighter in colour than those of John Sands and required up to 20 runs through the lithographic press. Some of the most appealing cards portrayed animals in comical human situations.
My collection includes three of these charming anthropomorphic cards from this company. One, bought years ago at an antiquarian book fair, shows a wallaroo fishing from a river bank with his picnic basket and bottle of beer by his side (1884). Another, found in a stamp dealer’s shoebox of miscellaneous material, shows a kangaroo in the uniform of the NSW Contingent, mounted on a camel en route to the Soudan War (1885). A third card, recently obtained on the Internet, depicts a possum and a kangaroo engaged in a sculling contest on the Parramatta River.
When the cards were issued they typically cost sixpence or a shilling, or rather more when joined or fringed and tasselled. This was expensive compared with the imported cards and production numbers must have been quite small. Very few of these cards survive today.
In Victoria, we had a few locally produced Christmas cards from as early as 1882. These include cards produced by government instrumentalities like the Post & Telegraph Office and the Victorian Railways. These early cards were very plain but by the end of the decade, some examples were quite elaborate.
The well-known firms of Troedel & Co and F.W. Niven were among local printers who produced these cards but they were never as colourful as the Sydney printings. Marjorie Graham reported that the Melbourne publisher, Samuel Mullen, had sent flower paintings by Ellis Rowan to London in 1883 with the object of producing Australian Christmas cards. These would certainly be desirable items if any should come to the surface.
I believe Christmas cards were going out of fashion to some extent in the 1890s. They had become less colourful and less ornate. One form that was popular was essentially a cabinet photograph with added greetings.
So we come to the beginning of the 20th C. This was very much the era of the postcard. Postcards were produced to show local scenes, art subjects, advertising etc and sometimes simply as a means of sending greetings. There are many Australian examples and those produced to send greetings “home to the old country” and to express “links with the Empire” are of special interest here. Many of these postcards carried Christmas messages. Those showing Santa Claus in an Australian setting are uncommon and highly valued. Others were overprinted with greetings, often in gilt or tinsel, and this was sometimes simply a device to sell slow-moving stock.
Until this time nearly all traditional Christmas cards were single sheets but in the Edwardian period cards began to appear in the folding style which has survived until this day. Typically there was a picture or decorative design on the front and a couple of enclosed leaves of verse and greetings tied by a coloured cord or ribbon. Often the back included details of the printer. Some of the most attractive designs of this period incorporated Australian flora and fauna in a distinct art nouveau style. Others showed familiar Australian scenery by artists such as R. Taylor-Ghee and J. Norton.
Things changed again with the outbreak of World War 1 with the renewed national fervour and pride associated with the war. All kinds of cards were produced both for sending from Australia to the diggers in Europe and also, of course, for the soldiers to send home to their loved ones in Australia. Many of these cards included Christmas and Seasons greetings, more especially in the last two years of the war. Reminders of sunny Australia at Christmas would have struck a poignant note with the Aussie digger sitting in his cold trench in mid- winter Europe. And the card that he could send to his family back home from “somewhere in France” might illustrate a white Christmas or more often simply the insignia of his battalion or company.
The period between the wars may have produced some Art Deco designs which would be highly collectable today. Margaret Preston was responsible for a series of Christmas cards showing her fine floral work in the early 1930s. Neville Cayley (junior) was the artist who was best known for his depiction of Australian birds while other artists tended to revert to the themes of rural and colonial Australia. Frequently a sentimental verse continued to accompany the illustrations until this time.
By World War 2 the quality and quantity of Christmas cards had fallen away. Paper shortage and the obvious focus on the war itself would explain some of this. Nevertheless a few interesting examples of Australian Christmas cards do still appear.
The mid 20th C is my self- imposed cut-off point for collecting Christmas cards.
At this point I want to say a little about my own collection. I have been a keen collector of early Australian books, postcards and other ephemera for a long time. It seemed a natural progression to eventually take up greeting cards. In particular I was enthused by articles written by Marjorie Graham in the Australian Antique Collector as early as 1968.
Cards have come into my collection quite sporadically. Nearly all my treasures have appeared when I have been looking for something else. Sources include secondhand book dealers, stamp dealers, antique shops and markets, collectibles fairs and now the Internet.
Condition is always important but in the case of the pioneer Christmas cards, it is probably fair to say that they are so scarce that imperfect examples are sometimes worth collecting. After more than thirty years I have only about fifty of our pre-1900 Christmas cards and I rarely see a duplicate of any of these.
Examples of 20th C Christmas cards are much more readily found. Greetings postcards of the Edwardian period are very common. The irregular shapes and sizes of the folding Christmas cards have meant that they were rarely preserved in albums in the same way as were postcards.
The early cards can often be accurately dated because they were advertised in the Christmas periodicals of the day. Later cards are sometimes inscribed with a date while others can be dated by design style.
I have divided my collection into several themes. Australian fauna, flora, scenery and military will cover most cards. In this way separate albums can be built up showing the historical development of the Australian Christmas card. I like to add a few typical and attractive examples of those produced in the early decades of the 20th C.
This discussion has concentrated on early Australian Christmas cards. There are many other greeting cards that could make an interesting challenge for collectors. And the beautiful 19th C chromo Christmas cards of England, Europe and America are still readily available for those with a little perseverance.
N B: The author is always looking for new information to confirm or update facts, names and dates about this topic. He would be pleased to hear from anyone with such information.
Blair A. Christmas Cards for the Collector. London: BT Batsford,1986.
Buday G. The History of the Christmas Card. London: Spring Books, 1964.
Graham M. “Collecting Christmas Cards and their Origin in the Colony.” Australian Antique Collector No. 4, 1968: 48-49.
Graham M. “One Hundred Years of Australian Cards.” Australian Antique Collector No. 23, 1982: 62-64.
Crone N. “Australia’s First Christmas Cards Remembered” Australian Garden History Vol. 9 No. 3, Nov-Dec 1997.