Tuesday, 23 December 2014


On the final day of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I'd like to share a card from the 1860s featuring a New Year message. Many Victorian cards looked ahead to the New Year.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
Cards from the 1860s always had a paper 'lace' border like this. In this card, you can see a scene from Dr Yule's Popular Lectures for the Young with a Christmas pudding for the globe.  I'm not sure what the diagram on the blackboard is referring to!

I hope you've enjoyed looking at these cards as much as I've enjoyed selecting them. This is my last blog of the year so I'd like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Monday, 22 December 2014


On Day 11 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I have a humorous card from the 1870s to share. It pokes fun at the skill and balance required to ride a penny farthing safely:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The cyclist, complete with top hat and newspaper, is about to fall into the canal. I love the expression on his face - and his whiskers!

Sunday, 21 December 2014


It's Day 10 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards' and I have a real treat for you today. Continuing with the animals and birds theme, here is a wonderful card from the 1880s:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
It features two beautiful owls flying in the moonlight while wearing top hats. One of them has an intriguing key around its neck.

The reason may be found in a second card which makes up the pair:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
I think the owls in top hats are possibly a bridegroom and his best man, and that the second card shows the bride owl in her bonnet with her new husband at her side. How very romantic!

Saturday, 20 December 2014


On Day 9 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I give you mice pulling a cracker!

Copyright Michelle Higgs
Or is it a sweet? I can't tell but it's another typically Victorian subject for a Christmas card featuring cute animals.

Having looked at the picture again, the tails of the mice look suspiciously long. Maybe they are rats, not mice, and are not so cute after all! Unless, of course, they are friendly pet rats...

Friday, 19 December 2014


Today is Day 8 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards'. I'm going to share a slightly different image of Father Christmas to the one from Day 1 which was based on the more scary pagan figure.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
In this card, Father Christmas is wearing a brown cloak and he has become more benign, similar to the red-jacketed gift-giving Father Christmas of today. The 1880s was the period in which there was a cross-over between the pagan figure of Father Christmas and the more friendly Santa Claus.

This is not a standard Christmas card; the reverse reveals it is, in fact, a trade card for the toy shop E. J. Wright's in Clapham High Street. The verse reads:

'Little Bo-peep had lost her sheep,
They left their tails behind them;
But come to the sights at E. J. Wright's,
And you'll be sure to find them.
And if you don't see those lambkins wee,
Then turn your faces beaming,
And open your eyes in wild surprise
At toys beyond your dreaming.

Horses are there beyond compare,
And pussy-cats are waiting, -
Such delights at E. J. Wright's!
And bon-bons fascinating,
Chocolate creams, and fruit that gleams
All frosted and beguiling, -
Tell Mother dear, she'll find them here
Where Santa Claus is smiling.'

Victorian customers had to be wary of the 'fruit that gleams all frosted and beguiling' because these types of sweets and bon-bons were coloured with poisons such as chromate of lead and red sulphuret of mercury (vermilion). They were highly toxic and could be deadly!

Thursday, 18 December 2014


On Day 7 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I offer another Victorian 'trick' type card. This time, it's a shadow card from the 1880s:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
These cards were supposed to draw parallels between animal and human characters, for instance, a picture of a duck paired with the shadow of a physicist (a quack); and a goat paired with an old gallant's shadow.

In this card, the shadow of the dog is shown in silhouette to highlight the similar facial attributes of an elderly man in a policeman's helmet.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014


Amazingly, it's already Day 6 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards' which means we're halfway through. Today, I'd like to share a card featuring a character with a long history: Mr Punch.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Mr Punch has his origins in the Italian clown Pulcinella. He is first recorded in 1662 when Samuel Pepys saw him featured in a puppet show as part of Charles II's wedding festivities.

Victorian theatregoers would have enjoyed shows with Mr Punch including a live dog called Toby who entertained the audience with tricks.

In this card, Mr Punch and his dog Toby are running away with the Christmas pudding: 'If I had specially ordered it it could scarcely be better.' This is 'Mr Punch's Favourite Receipt for a Christmas Pudding'!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


It's Day 5 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards' and today I give you a Victorian novelty card. This is a 'trick' card of the type that was extremely popular in the 1870s and 1880s. It tapped in to the Victorians' love of ingenuity and invention.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
What can you see in this landscape? Scroll down for a clue.

View the card sideways!

The reverse is printed with the message: 'In this landscape you can trace a jolly Father Christmas face.'

Monday, 15 December 2014


On Day 4 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', it's time to look at a card with one of the most common designs of all: animals.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Cats, dogs, monkeys, pigs, mice, you name it: the Victorians put all kinds of animals on their Christmas cards. Some of them were anthropomorphic with animals dressed in all kinds of Victorian finery. Others, like this one from the 1880s, featured creatures in their natural state.

Here, we have four cute puppies wishing the recipient a merry Christmas. Their heads are die-cut to give a three-dimensional appearance; this would have made the card slightly more expensive. This card is aimed squarely at the children's market. In fact, the reverse of the card is inscribed 'To Ronald, From your little cousin Guenelda with love and best wishes for a happy new year'.

Sunday, 14 December 2014


For Day 3 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I'd like to share an early card from the 1860s featuring a girl in the snow. I don't think this girl is really dressed for such wintry weather!

Copyright Michelle Higgs

These early cards were quite small, about the size of visiting cards which the Victorians left at people's houses to say they had called. Christmas cards from the 1860s had a paper 'lace' border, usually with a scalloped edge. You'll notice that there are a limited number of colours on this card because chromolithography was still in its infancy.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


Yesterday, I shared an image of a Victorian Christmas card featuring a scary-looking Father Christmas in a green cloak. Today, for day 2 of '12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards', I'd like to show you a 'typical' design from the 1880s:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Here, we have a rosy-cheeked child dressed for winter weather, out in the snow. Christmas cards featuring children were commonplace in the 1880s, partly because children made up a good proportion of the target market. As mentioned yesterday, Victorian toy shops were one of the types of retail outlet which sold Christmas cards.

Incidentally, at first, Victorian Christmas cards were not folded like modern versions; they were flat and the sender wrote a message on the reverse. It was not until the 1890s that the folded card became popular.

Friday, 12 December 2014


My very first book was about the history of Christmas cards (Shire Books, 1999) and I still have a small collection of Victorian cards. Unlike modern cards, they are inventive, humorous and attractive; they are often like miniature works of art because they reflected the changing tastes of the public and the artistic movements of the time.

Although the world's first Christmas card was produced in 1843 for Henry Cole (later Sir), sending pre-printed Christmas cards did not catch on until almost twenty years later. Before the invention of chromolithography in about 1860, Christmas cards were very expensive to produce. They were also expensive to post until 1870 when the Post Office in England introduced a halfpenny stamp for postcards. At the same time, it declared that Christmas cards (and letters) could be sent for a halfpenny if they were enclosed in an unsealed envelope. 

From 1870, the popularity of Christmas cards really took off and by the 1880s, sales reached well into the millions. In 1877, it was estimated that 4,500,000 letters and cards were sent in the seven days before Christmas. The Victorians liked to collect all manner of things, and Christmas cards became the new craze. This hobby was especially popular with children, and they stuck their cards into albums, often with the date and name of the sender written underneath.

Christmas cards were sold in toy shops, tobacconists and drapery stores as well as bookshops and stationers. They were reviewed in newspapers, as books are today, and long advertisements were printed detailing the designs of cards in the run up to Christmas. 

For the next 12 days, as an antidote to the chore of writing Christmas cards, I'm going to share some images of my favourite cards. On Day 1, I give you a card from the 1870s featuring a slightly scary-looking Father Christmas in a green cloak, not red.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Father Christmas is based on a Pagan figure who had a green or brown cloak, not the traditional red of Santa Claus. Until about the 1880s, Father Christmas on Victorian cards wore a mixture of red, green or brown but by the end of the nineteenth century, the present-giving Santa Claus in red was the image predominantly seen.  

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


For the past three months, I've been working solidly on my new book Servants' Stories: Life Below Stairs in Their Own Words 1800-1950. As a result, my 'Visitor's Guide to Victorian England' blog has been shockingly neglected so it's time to make amends!

While writing and researching the book, I've been truly immersed in the world of domestic servants. One of the areas I looked at was how maids found their jobs. There was, of course, word of mouth and the 'Situations Vacant' columns in newspapers, but there were also servants' registries or registry offices: the equivalent of today's employment agency.

Servants' registries were usually run by ex-servants who had set up a business with their life savings, often in conjunction with another enterprise such as a newsagent or grocer. There was a huge expansion of these offices during the Victorian period to cater for the rise in demand for servants by the middle classes, and most provincial towns had at least one while in large cities there were numerous offices. The servants' registries specialised in matching up domestic servants with mistresses who had vacancies.

Ladies wanting servants would contact a servant’s registry with their requirements, such as the type of servant and salary provided. The office would match up servants with employers, and the larger ones had private booths in which prospective maids could be interviewed. In most cases, both mistress and servant would pay a fee for the service. Charities such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (M.A.B.Y.S.) and the Young Women's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) also ran registries.

Recently, I came across an excellent post on Emmy Eustace's blog about Mrs Hunt's Servants' Registry Office. Mrs Hunts' was a famous registry office with an impeccable reputation. Only the very best servants with first-class 'characters' were considered for positions advertised in her agency and she offered a 'no engagement, no fee' policy. The 'character' was the written reference provided by the servant's previous employer and he or she could not hope to find a better place with higher wages or improved living conditions without one.
From 'Servant London' in Living London (1900)
Mrs Hunt's "suited" over 50,000 customers a year, according to a journalist for Living London. When he visited the office in Duke Street in 1900, he discovered that there was "a black list which is carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants’ characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient."

The problem with 'characters' was that masters and mistresses were not legally obliged to provide them, hence the trade in fraudulent written references. If a ‘character’ was not forthcoming to show to a future employer, it would automatically be assumed that the servant was an unsatisfactory employee. By the same token, a mistress might write an untruthfully positive reference just to be rid of a troublesome maid, passing the problem on to the next employer.
From 'Servant London' in Living London (1900)

While Mrs Hunt's catered for high-class clientele, at the other end of the scale were the fraudulent registry offices which placed tempting advertisements in the provincial newspapers. The Pall Mall Gazette (15 January 1894) reported:

"When servants answer them they are summoned to London by the registry-keeper who has advertised. On arrival in London, the deluded servants are unable to get any information about the situation advertised. The situations, in fact, do not exist, the servants having been deluded into coming up in order that they should lodge at the registry office, at a charge leaving a fine margin of profit to the keeper. Nor do they get a room to themselves at these so-called servants’ homes. Seven, eight and nine are packed into one room, and the poor victims can do nothing but remonstrate, fearing that if they leave their chances of obtaining the desired situation will be made so much the more remote…Servants lodging at these wretched homes are sent to employers where they cannot stop. For instance, a good servant is sent to a bad place, where he or she will not remain, and a bad servant is sent to a good place, where the master or mistress will not put up with incompetency. Thus the poor servants are constantly kept returning to the registry lodgings, impoverishing themselves while enabling these land-sharks to live in luxury."

'Morning Wear' from Cassell's Household Guide, 1911

The journalist from Living London alluded to the risk to servants of answering "specious advertisements.  There are “situations” with “good wages for suitable young women” which are not “places” within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed."

From 1907, registry offices within the London County Council area were licensed and these annual licenses were withdrawn if there were complaints. However, local authorities elsewhere in Britain did not take advantage of powers to do the same so a registry office in London with a revoked license could legally set up again outside the capital. It seems that the best way for servants to avoid fraudulent registry offices and misleading advertisements was to find situations via personal recommendation only.

'Maid of All Work' from Living London, 1900