Saturday 22 December 2018

Seasons Greetings & A Couple of Creepy Cards by Catherine Hokin

 1950s card, not a photo of my house
Christmas cards: to send or not to send, that is the
question. I wish I could claim my inability to buy/write/post them stems from a concern for the planet but the more honest reason is forgetfulness when it comes to writing down addresses I don't regularly visit and a love of all things electronic when it comes to communication. Also I never know how to display the last few we get - I can't bear them on strings or cluttering up shelves - it's the only aspect
of Christmas that turns me into the Grinch. I'm down to sending a handful now and, in that at least, it seems I'm on trend. Large companies like Hallmark have seen the amount of Christmas cards purchased each year decrease by a third since 2007 and the drop isn't just in the UK: research from the American Greeting Card Association suggest that Europeans and Canadians now send an average of 11 cards per household per year compared to the staggering 300 posted out by pre-baby boomer families, while Americans (despite the best stationary shops on the planet) only send 8.

 Prang Christmas card with Santa's hotline
The tradition of sending cards goes back to the mid nineteenth century. Producing the first commercial Christmas card is an honour claimed by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 but it was a German immigrant to the USA who started the greetings card industry as we now know it. In 1856 Louis Prang opened a small lithographic business near Boston, by 1866, he had perfected the colour lithographic process and by the 1870s he was publishing a range of deluxe Christmas cards. These were mainly sold in England where the introduction of the halfpenny stamp had made sending cards affordable across a wide range of society but the habit also gained ground in America with Prang's cards taking such a big share of the market (he was printing 5 million cards a year by 1881) that he became known as the father of the American Christmas card. This seasonal success story then takes on more of an It's A Wonderful Life feel: Prang's cards were lavish and expensive to produce, often with 30 colours on one print plus glitter (and occasionally tassels) and he was eventually forced out of business in 1890 as cheap copies flooded the market. His cards are now highly collectible - although not quite as valuable as the first Cole card which sold at auction in 2001 for $35,800. That's one I would have made a bit of space for.

 As with many of our current Christmas traditions, sending cards was something the Victorians leaped on with all the fervour of Tiny Tim spying a roasted goose. According to BBC research, the new greetings card industry produced over 11 million cards in 1880 alone and competitions were regularly held to help feed the demand for new designs. In 1879, card publishers to the royal family Raphael Tuck (who produced as many as 3000 designs a season) held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with 500 guineas in prizes. It attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second competition, judged among others by Sir John Millais, followed in 1882 with this time £5000 being awarded in prizes. It was Raphael Tuck who introduced novelty cards alongside the more traditional Christmas scenes, including cards that could be turned into ships and horses and soldiers. And then things got really strange...

 Santa's reindeer having an off day
Children riding bats anyone? Beetles dancing with frogs, mice riding lobsters? Children being menaced by snowmen even Stephen King couldn't dream up? The iconography of Christmas - trees, puddings, the jolly old Santa - is there in nineteenth century cards but there are also a host of other influences, from the Germanic Krampus and 'monsters of nightmareland' as Gleeson White (editor of The Studio) called some of the images in 1894, to natural history (a Victorian obsession) and what some historians have catalogued as social messages: dead robins in the snow as reminders of the starving poor. Whatever the reasoning was behind the macabre designs has been lost in the passage of time and it may be that these cards were the oddities not the commonplace - the fact of their collection giving them perhaps more importance now than they had at the time. Today the most popular card sold features three cutesy cherubic angels, including one with eyes that would sit better on a spaniel. Since Hallmark first produced it in 1977, this image has sold 34 million copies.

Do not send me it. These, on the other hand, would take pride of place. Enjoy and Merry Christmas one and all.

 Mummy's on the sherry again

 Doing the Christmas recycling
  The Spirit of Christmas


Susan Price said...

I have to say, I feel very like that last melting, gloomy snowman.

abigail brieson said...

Susan, that's sad. I hope you find some joy wherever it may be.

At first glance I believed the photo was of a white Scotty Terrier standing in the rain.

Katherine Langrish said...

Love these! Brilliant post!