There are 27 boxes of Christmas cards in the John Johnson Collection and a further 7 of Christmas cards: trade. Christmas cards are also represented in our Albums, notably in a Jonathan King stock book, a S. Hildersheimer & Co. sample album (1880-81), and in a beautiful Hildesheimer & Faulkner competition album (1881-1882). This post aims to contextualise some of these cards.
The Victorians are often credited with (or blamed for) inventing the modern Christmas. Before the Victorian era there was no continuing tradition of celebrating Christmas. In the church calendar Easter was the more important festival. However, as most Christmas celebrations have their roots in traditional, even ancient, British and European customs, the Victorian Christmas was in reality an amalgam of novelty and nostalgia.
The Christmas card, however, was a true Victorian invention. The commercial Christmas card can be dated precisely to 1843, to a commission by Henry Cole (1808–1882, later knighted). Cole had worked with Rowland Hill on the Penny Post (1840) and was later famed for his contributions to the Great Exhibition and to the founding of the South Kensington Museum (subsequently the V&A) of which he was the first Director. The card was designed by John Callcott Horsley (1817–1903) and departs from the intricate lace paper and elaborate composition of the contemporary and well-established valentine. The hand-coloured design encapsulates the central elements of the Victorian Christmas in a pseudo-triptych. It shows a wealthy family toasting the viewer, flanked by two scenes of charitable giving to the poor. It is notably secular. Sadly, we do not have an example in the John Johnson Collection, so I refer you to the V&A’s excellent online article about the card.
Despite good sales of the Cole–Horsley card (1,000 copies were lithographed and hand-coloured and those surplus to Cole’s personal needs were sold at his own shop, Felix Summerly’s Home Office, for the princely sum of a shilling each), the next commercial British Christmas card was not produced until 1848. In the 1860s, Christmas cards were typically similar to visiting cards, with scalloped edges and small embossed images of robins, holly or flowers. Note headings with similar designs embossed at the top were also popular at this time with matching scalloped envelopes.
It was not until the 1870s that the tradition of sending cards was finally established, coinciding with the flowering of colour printing (in the form of chromolithography). The halfpenny postage for unsealed correspondence boosted sales of Christmas cards and marked the birth of the postcard in Britain. The Post Office first asked the public to ‘Post early for Christmas’ in 1881, and in 1882 The London Reader still referred to Christmas cards as the ‘latest development … of late years.’
The newest cards from publishers such as Marcus Ward, Hildesheimer and Faulkner (both famed for their superior artwork), Sulman, and Rimmel (whose offerings were often scented sachets) were eagerly awaited and discussed in the press. Cards were usually single rather than folded sheets with printed verses and space for handwritten messages on the back.
In the 1870s to 1880s, they became more complex, sometimes incorporating lace paper, decorative scraps, mechanical devices (cards with paper ‘springs’ to create a three-dimensional effect, or with strings to activate moveable parts or pop-ups), and gold and silver printing. They were the province of the wealthy, but were less expensive than valentines.
Marcus Ward’s artists included Walter Crane (brother of its artistic director) and Kate Greenaway. Several publishers ran competitions for card design or artistic arrangement of cards in the albums that were so popular among women.
It is surprising that, in such a pious age, the imagery of most Christmas cards was not religious (although the accompanying verses sometimes were).
Certainly there were some nativity scenes, angels, crosses with flowers or religious sentiments, but these were well outnumbered by images of children, Father Christmases, wintry scenes, flowers (often looking forward to spring rather than winter), robins, food and anthropomorphic animals and birds.
Humorous cards were also common. Did the Victorians find the secular nature of most of their Christmas cards odd? There is little evidence that they did. ‘The diffusion among one’s friends and relatives of things so well adapted to cultivate taste is a real Christmas Charity’ wrote Thomas Hood about Marcus Ward’s latest cards in the journal Fun. Church attendance (and charitable giving) would have been taken for granted, and the secular and the sacred seem to have co-existed comfortably.
An invaluable contemporary account of Christmas cards is this extra number of The Studio, 1894.
The Christmas card has continued in popularity, although the flights and fancies of Victorian invention and paper engineering have given way to much simpler, folded cards. A few years ago it was almost unthinkable that the Christmas card might disappear, despite the secularisation of greetings as well as images on some cards in order to avoid causing offence. However, environmental concerns and the viable alternative of the e-Card may result in its decline. As Librarian of the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera (in the Bodleian Library), I find a gentle irony in the gradual substitution of the ephemeral by the e-phemeral!
We are grateful to Jill Shefrin for contributing this guest post and to Audrey T. Carpenter for donating the Vinicombe school pieces which Jill discusses. Jill is compiling a complete catalogue of all known school pieces in English. If you know of any, please email her at: email@example.com
In his memoirs, the grammarian Lindley Murray (1745-1826) recalled an incident in his childhood during which:
“a very happy impression was made on my mind, by a piece which was given me to write, and in the performance of which I had to exhibit a specimen of my best handwriting. The sheet was decorated round its edges with a number of pleasing figures, displayed with taste and simplicity. In the centre my performance was to be contained. This was a transcript of the visit and salutation of the angels to the shepherds… who were tending their flocks by night. The beauty of the sheet; the property I was to have in it; and the distinction which I expected from performing the work in a handsome manner; prepared my mind for relishing the solemn narrative… I was highly pleased with the whole.” (quoted in Charles Monaghan, The Murrays of Murray Hill. Urban History Press, 1998, pp. 9-10).
In 1799, a ten-year-old boy called Henry Vinicombe completed a “specimen of” his “best handwriting.” He would probably have called the printed sheet a “school piece”. It and another, filled in by Henry in 1800, have recently been donated to the John Johnson Collection by Audrey T. Carpenter
An earlier piece by Henry, displaying his text surrounded by engravings of Admiral Nelson’s glorious victory over the French fleet off the mouth of the Nile (Laurie & Whittle, 1798), is in the collections of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich: http://bit.ly/2AbbV8u
The function of a school piece was the same as that of a sampler, except that it was handwriting rather than stitchery that was on show. The child, in this case Henry Vinicombe, wrote in the blank centre of the sheet
Sometimes a place for their signature—and perhaps the date of completion or the name of their school—was incorporated into the pictorial border.
In format, school pieces recall prints on which a border design encloses letterpress type.
School piece borders were often narrative, their content diverse. Some illustrated bible stories, others popular works of literature or history or even theatre productions.
Others taught lessons in geography, writing or more intangible subjects like politeness, industriousness or the virtues of commerce. Yet others portrayed the news of the day, from military and naval victories through notorious crimes and cataclysmic events.
Curators and antiquarian booksellers call these sheets “writing blanks” or “writing sheets”. In the long eighteenth century they had many names, of which “school piece” was the most common. Printed from copperplates, they were published between about 1660 and 1860. As with other kinds of relatively cheap prints, the survival rate for school pieces is very low; the Bodleian is fortunate to hold well over 100 examples.
Rare as these sheets are, and difficult as it is to trace the history of their publication, contemporary descriptions of their use are rarer still. Murray helps us to understand children’s response to their school pieces. Henry’s school pieces are special because, thanks to his descendent, who donated his pieces to the library, we know something about his life. All too often, it is impossible to establish anything at all about the lives of the children whose possessions survive in museums and rare book and ephemera collections.
I’ve been piecing together the history of English school pieces for several years. They were sold in some other European countries, but only some, There’s a very useful book by Leontine Buijnsters-Smets on Dutch school pieces: Decoratieve prenten met geschreven wensen, 1670-1870. Nijmegen : Vantilt, 2007
Published to coincide with the end of a school term, with new titles appearing regularly, in England they were sold wholesale to schoolmasters, who then sold them on to their pupils.
Some children purchased them directly, either in shops, or if the evidence of a set of alphabet cards of London Cries published by William and Thomas Darton can be trusted, from street criers.
At least by the nineteenth century—when they were known as “Christmas pieces”—even children in workhouses might receive prizes for them. According to the Morning Chronicle (23 December 1840), on:
“Christmas-day in the Workhouses …in Clerkenwell, … Mr. Whitelock, one of the overseers, has generally supplied the children with Christmas pieces to write for prizes.”
I’ve said we are fortunate to know Henry’s history. His father, William Vinicombe was an Excise Officer. The family lived in Marylebone, in London, where they leased a house and took in lodgers and Henry and his sisters went to school. He started working at thirteen. We don’t know his initial occupation but, like his father, it was probably something clerical, and in 1818 he followed his father into the Excise Service, and had achieved a relatively senior position before he was fired in 1843, having been found in “a State of Intoxication from excessive drinking”. As a young man he was a bit of a dandy, spending beyond his means on fashionable clothing—but also on books. He married in 1832 and had eight children. I’ve traced a few other young people whose school pieces have survived from the long eighteenth century. They were sons and daughters of tradesmen, merchants, clergymen, tenant farmers, and gentlemen.
Had Henry been a girl it would be even more exciting to know his history. Only about a fifth of the filled-in school pieces I’ve seen were done by girls—including one by Henry’s sister, Frances Vinicombe— and contemporary advertisements often refer to them as “for school-boys to write in” (H. Overton, 1758).
One of Henry’s school pieces celebrates Education, with emblematic illustrations representing a gentlemanly curriculum: War, Mesuration, Geography, Mathematics, History, Music, Astronomy, Fortification, Painting, Agriculture and Commerce. Like arithmetic, writing was a very important skill in the long eighteenth century for young men seeking employment. Writing masters like Joseph Champion and Philip Pickering advertised that they could “speedily” fit youths “for Trades” (Country Journal or The Craftsman, 9 January 1731) or “any of the Publick Offices” (Daily Journal, 14 June 1728). A boy who could both write well and keep accounts was almost certain to find employment.
Benjamin Franklin, whose life story was told on another school piece in the collection, was a sterling example of the rewards of such industriousness.
Henry’s chosen text for 1800 celebrates the value of a good education. [image] It was excerpted from the moral to the fable of “The Bull and the Dog” in William Markham’s Introduction to Spelling and Reading English. First published in 1738, Markham’s spelling book was among the most popular of the century. Henry probably read one of the editions illustrated by Thomas Bewick. The passage nicely summarizes the value of education for a young man at the close of the eighteenth century: “Nothing has a more direct Tendency to promote the Honour of a Nation, or the Good of Society, than the Initiation of Youth, in Virtue and Knowledge.”
We are very privileged to have a guest post by Dr Terry Hale from the University of Hull. An expert on annuals, this festive post explores a little-known corner of the John Johnson Collection.
Despite the considerable level of academic interest in Victorian literary culture, much of it in recent years focusing on sensation fiction, the more ephemeral publications of the era – notably, Christmas Annuals, the closely-related Summer Numbers/Annuals, and even, starting in the early 1880s, the Shilling Shocker – have fared much less well. This is all the more surprising given that such ephemeral productions, though looking back to such relatively well-documented forms as the literary annuals, gift books, and keepsakes of the 1820s and 30s, were largely a product of the same forces that gave rise to Victorian sensationalism or, in the case of those productions aimed at juvenile readers, an attempt to mitigate and channel those forces in more wholesome directions.
A large part of the problem is, of course, that such ephemeral productions have simply not survived. By and large, readers discarded such material almost as quickly as they acquired it, probably at the same time they took down their decorations in the case of Christmas Annuals or while packing their trunks before returning home from their holidays in the case of Summer Numbers, while collectors, bibliophiles and librarians have tended to view such material as unworthy of their attention. Even Shilling Shockers, with their fragile paper wrappers and far from sturdy paper spines, were hardly designed to survive more than a single railway journey.
The net result of this is that anyone seeking to research the history of such marginal publications is going to struggle to access material. Indeed, finding a substantial run – never mind a complete run from its inception in 1860 through to its demise in 1898 – of the legendary Beeton’s Christmas Annual, in which Sherlock Holmes first made his appearance in 1887, would tax the combined strength of the entire British library system. The National Library of Scotland has a number of issues, for example, as does the British Library. But between them, nothing like a complete run – and very little from the publication’s final decade despite the promise of their catalogues. In fact, this is a problem with most Christmas Annuals. Very few such publications were under the same ownership from start to finish, and it is quite clear that a change of proprietor rarely, if ever, improved distribution, especially when such changes occurred in the latter stages of a particular title’s life cycle – and this directly impacts on conservation
But if accessing Beeton’s Annual poses considerable problems for researchers, there are a great number of lesser annuals – including those attached to such standard Victorian monthly periodicals as Belgravia, London Society, or Tinsley’s Magazine – that pose no less insurmountable obstacles.
It is for this reason that the John Johnson Collection, accessible through the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is such a useful resource. For although the Collection is, like those made by other collectors, a serendipitous enterprise, it contains not only a great deal of material not available elsewhere, some of which allows us to patch the gaps in other collections, but that material comes complete with the fragile paper wrappers in which such items were originally issued. This business of wrappers is more important than one might imagine since the covers often contain information about price, publisher, year of publication, and even the name of the editor which is not repeated elsewhere. The vast majority of annuals that have survived have been bound together higgledy-piggledy without wrappers which makes even the question of assigning a date to them something of a laborious process.
More significantly, however, the John Johnson Collection has particular strengths of its own: firstly, in the field of annuals aimed at children; secondly, in the not unrelated area of annuals produced by evangelical groups; and, thirdly, with regard to the emergent sensation novel.
Thus, Annuals Box 10 (of the thirteen box-files in which the annuals are stored) contains a useful set of the lavish Christmas Numbers (1869, 1870. 1879 to 1886) offered by TheQuiver, a periodical perhaps attempting to soften its strongly evangelical stance following the death of its proprietor, John Cassell, in 1865. One of the high points of examining this set of material was the discovery of a little known story by the writer Bernard Heldman dealing with fraud (‘To Be Left Till Called For’, The Golden Mark, Christmas Number of The Quiver, 1880). Since Heldman himself was later convicted of fraud and subsequently changed his name to Richard Marsh when he started writing sensation fiction, this item is something of a curiosity.
Elsewhere we find the 1877 Christmas Number of Good Words with contributions from Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant (Box 5); the The Fireside Christmas Number for 1895 (again Box 5); and Paths of Peace, 1897, the Christmas Number of the Sunday Magazine (Box 11).
Another interesting body of material aimed at the children’s market, though this time of an entirely secular nature, is to be found in Box 1, which contains four Summer Numbers of Ally Sloper’s Annual (1881-1884), together with a twelve-year run of Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar (1876-1887). The hand behind all this material is Charles Henry Ross (1835-1923). In August, 1867 Ross published a full-page picture strip in the humorous magazine Judy, of which he was then editor. This picture strip, entitled ‘Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount’, introduced the character Ally Sloper – thereby creating what is now generally considered the first British comic strip. Judy was taken over by the artist Gilbert Dalziel in 1872, though Ross’s wife, Marie Duval, who had stronger graphic skills than her husband, continued to draw the Ally Sloper strips until 1879. Finally, in 1883, Ross sold his rights in Ally Sloper to Dalziel. The material gathered in the John Johnson Collection, therefore, casts considerable light on this early transitional phase in the development of the comic strip.
Ross’s work both as a writer and as a graphic artist extended far beyond Judy. During the same period, he was also supplying both Beeton’s Christmas Annual and Routledge’s Christmas Annual with comic strips as well as various skits and stories. Ross is also a significant, though largely overlooked, figure in the development of sensation fiction. It now seems likely, for example, that he was the principal author of the pseudonymous Penny Dreadful Ruth the Betrayer; or, the Female Spy (1862-63), a work which is now considered to have been the first to introduce the figure of the female detective to popular literature.
Ross was not above mocking the conventions of sensation fiction, however, and in 1872 he published a sophisticated parody of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon entitled Hot and Cold; A Life and Death Search which constituted the entirety of Routledge’s Christmas Annual for that year. The John Johnson Collection does not include a copy of Hot and Cold, but it does contain two issues of a Christmas Annual entitled The Round Table (numbers for 1880 and 1890; Box 11), both containing criminous matter, of which Ross was editor. This criminous theme is picked up in other annuals, such as John Camden Hotten’s The Piccadilly Annual (1871), a work largely dedicated to Hunted Down and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Box 9); The Englishman’s Christmas Annual (1877), a bizarre publication created by Dr Edward Kenealy, the barrister who had defended the notorious Tichborne Claimant and who was still trying to drum up public support for his client more than two years after he had been sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment for perjury (Box 4); and an extremely scarce copy of Remington’s Annual for Christmas 1889 (Box 10). (Remington & Co. was one of the more elusive publishers who clustered around Henrietta Street in the 1880s.)
Paradoxically, though shilling monthlies such as Belgravia and London Society were at the forefront of publishing sensation fiction in instalments, their various Christmas and Summer Annuals, though by no means devoid of interest, are relatively tame affairs.
London Society was launched by the publisher James Hogg in 1862. From the outset, it published a Christmas Annual and, starting around 1868, a Summer Number as well. However, while tracking the evolution of the Christmas Annual has been made slightly easier by the fact that, at least as far as the early years are concerned, copies are occasionally to be found in bound collections of the periodical itself, this is not the case with regard to the Summer Numbers which are very scarce.
On this basis, the five copies of the London Society Summer Numbers (for 1868, 1869, 1871, 1875, and 1886) in the John Johnson Collection (Box 7) are of particular interest, not least since they all retain their bright paper wrappers. Indeed, while the noted bibliographers Sadleir and Wolff both list their holdings of the Summer Numbers, the earliest issues they record are for 1872 (Sadleir) and 1874 (Wolff) – the John Johnson Collection, therefore, indicates a slightly earlier launch date and raises the possibility of an even earlier one.
Interestingly enough, the contents of these early Summer Numbers themselves – and we can include here Mary Braddon’s The Summer Tourist of 1871 (Box 11) – provide a fascinating glimpse of how the Victorian Miss came to terms with the new phenomenon of the middle-class family holiday. Thus, the various articles, stories, and poems, not to mention illustrations, deal with such issues as the merits of one destination over another, both at home and abroad, how to select a hotel, the advantages and disadvantages of travelling companions, picnicking, and even the etiquette and management of seaside romances.
Needless to say, other researchers will undoubtedly find other pathways through the John Johnson Collection and other points of interest along the way. There can be no doubt, however, that the Collection itself comprises a major repository of such material, a repository, moreover, that has not only been professionally catalogued but is easily accessible thanks to the helpful ministrations of the library staff though for those unfamiliar with the Bodleian it is certainly worth sending an email a few days in advance of a personal visit.