Answers to Correspondents

The agony column is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 19th century, earnest readers of The Girl’s Own Paper wrote in to the weekly publication under pseudonyms asking for advice on all manner of problems. It’s unlikely that many girls today concern themselves with pressing issues such as how to remove ink stains from ivory piano keys, the correct etiquette of visiting cards, or, thankfully, how to remove a boil from the eyeball.

The advice they received in the ‘Answers to Correspondents’ page was prescriptive, stern, sometimes harsh and often astonishingly encyclopaedic. Any indiscretions involving the opposite sex were severely reprimanded, while those with poor handwriting usually suffered a withering critique.

The questions themselves were never printed which make many of the answers all the more intriguing, and, we have to admit, occasionally hysterical.  Whoever the Girl’s Own agony aunt was, she refused to suffer fools gladly and her advice perhaps tells us more than many other contemporary sources what life must have been like for a middle class girl in the 1890s.

The First Letter'

ALICE. – A crayon copy is not eligible for exhibition at the Royal Academy.

MADGE. – Yes, there is a verse in the Bible that has all the letters of the alphabet in it. See Ezra vii. 21.

Johann Strauss II
. – Why do you wish to whiten your face and neck? Of course you could dip your face in a flour-barrel, or get some whitewash applied by the cook next time she whitens the scullery. But what a coarse, orange-peel-looking skin you will soon have if you fill up the pores of the face!

BLACK TOM. – 1. The girl you name as being hopelessly attached to a man she has never met but only seen at concerts, should be sent away from the foreign town where you are both staying. The story is of a most humiliating character; she disgraces the sex, the members of which should be sought, not themselves the seekers. 2. We could not hazard an opinion on what was your disease. Your writing slopes the wrong way.

ALYS and MABELLE. – ‘Nigel’ is pronounced as it is spelt; the last syllable as the first in ‘gelatine’.


WORRIED (but not) TO DEATH. – We know nothing of the method advertised. We can only advise you not to try it without the opinion of your own family doctor.

PUSSIE. – We cannot tell you of the diseases induced by the bad habit of eating anything not designed for food. You must be already in a very unwholesome condition. The best means of curing yourself would be to tell your mother, and request her to put a stop to it at once, if you have no strength of mind and will to cure yourself of such nasty habits.

School class in Great Britain, 1930...

MARJORIE. – 1. Your heliotrope dress will probably fade if you wash it. 2. To raise his hat on the first meeting is all that is required of a man. To do so five or six times would be ridiculous.


Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.


Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.


Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.


Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.


Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.


The GREAT Mary Evans Christmas Gift Guide

Tatler Christmas Shopping Guide

Combing the archive to reveal this season’s best buys for all the family.

We’re sorry but it’s becoming unavoidable.  There are just eighteen oh-so-short shopping days to go until Christmas.  As panic buying sets in the length and breadth of the country, FEAR NOT, for help is at hand.  Fling away those gift guides in Sunday supplements, forget about jostling for a parking space in Westfield, throw caution to the wind and CANCEL that Amazon Prime subscription. You don’t need it.* We’ve trawled through history itself in order to help you solve any festive gift-giving dilemmas.  Read on for some vintage inspiration and watch your family’s faces light up this Christmas.

*Did we mention you WILL need a time-travelling machine?

For discerning Uncle Jeremy, the ultimate in loungewear – a velvet smoking jacket from Peter Robinson with silk collar, cuffs and frogging.

Advert for Peter Robinson, gentlemen's clothing 1895

For your tech-loving teenage son – the twin-lens artist hand camera from the London Stereoscopic Company.  He’ll be extra-impressed that it’s the same one used by the Princess of Wales.

Top of any little girl’s wish-list – a toy roadside pub.  Yes, that’s right.  Complete with beer pumps, ashtrays and pork scratchings , this boozer offers instruction in basic arithmetic courtesy of the darts board.

For dear mother, what can be more thoughtful than an electric vacuum cleaner or state-of-the-art Frigidaire?  No more daily shopping, no more drudgery of carpet beating.  Now she can clean carpets all day to her heart’s content.  How kind of daddy.

Frigidaire fridge advert

Stumped again about what to buy Aunty Irene?  The answer is staring you (quite literally) in the face.  Who doesn’t want a cat telephone cosy from Selfridges in their life?  Aunty Irene need fret no more about her phone getting chilly during those winter months.

Cat telephone cosy from Selfridges, 1919

For seven-year-old Nicholas, a Tri-ang model motor car is just the thing.  But how to choose between the Rolls Royce, the Brooklands or the Chevrolet Regal?  Buy all three (they’re just £15 15 shillings each) and you needn’t feel so guilty about packing him off back to Harrow on Boxing Day.

Advertisement for Tri-Ang toy model motor cars

Ever since Grandpapa singed his moustache while using a toasting fork, the need to modernise has been apparent.  Treat him to this 1909 Elkington plate stand and lamp for making flame-free crumpets and toast at the breakfast table.

Stand and lamp for making toast 1909

For that opinionated great-aunt you loathe.  Buy her a horrific dinner gong or match holder.  Do be mindful that these will be re-gifted back to you in her will when she pops her clogs.

Chain smoking Aunty Lil would love a new Ronson lighter.  And why not also buy her a Perfu-mist scent dispenser at the same time?  We can only hope she doesn’t get the two muddled up after one too many gin and dubonnets.

Advertisement for Ronson lighters, 1931

For the newest member of the family, how about a winter bassinette or a wooden horse on wheels from the 1888 catalogue of Dunkley’s of London and Birmingham?  Strictly no actual playing with them though; it’ll seriously affect their valuation on Antiques Roadshow in 130 years’ time.

And finally, you know last year, when your sister bought you that Brian Connolly CD for Christmas and you vowed revenge?  Remember when you dreamed of finding a present that would give her nightmares at night?  Here you go.

Pssst… for actual Christmas presents you can buy today featuring Mary Evans images, visit; Prints-Online.

Sprucing Up – The History of the Christmas Tree

Bringing home the Christmas tree

On 23 December 1848, The Illustrated London News published an engraving by J. L. Williams of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  The publication of the picture was to mark the defining moment for the Christmas tree and within a short few years, it had, despite Dickens dismissing it as, “the new German toy,” become a widely adopted and accepted part of festive celebrations in Britain.  But the history of the Christmas tree stretches far further into previous centuries.  Allow our timeline to take you on a pine-scented journey back in time.

Christmas Tree

8th century – European legend attributes the origin of Christmas trees to the English St. Boniface, aka Winfrid of Crediton, a missionary in Germany.  Its rather grisly genesis stems from Winfrid’s chopping down of a tree before a crowd of barbarians, used previously as a site for human sacrifices.  According to legend, the blood-stained tree, “fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder” but close by, a young fir tree stood miraculously unharmed leading Winfrid to lecture his audience, “This little tree, a young child in the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight”


1533 – There is a belief, particularly in Germany, that Martin Luther invented the custom.  One Christmas Eve he was so apparently moved by a firmament of shining stars that he recreated the spectacle for his family by standing a young fir tree in their darkened house and placing candles on its branches.

1605 – The earliest authentic record of Christmas trees as we known them today is in a manuscript in which a Strasbourg merchant wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets etc.”

Martin Luther with his Family and their Christmas Tree

1737 – A member of the University of Wittenberg describes a country lady who distributed little trees bearing lighted candles to children, together with gifts laid beneath them.  Later in the century, Samuel Coleridge visited Germany and was intrigued by the delight his hosts took in their Christmas tree, which he described as, “a pleasing novelty”.

1800 – Queen Charlotte, German wife of King George III, hosts a children’s party at which a large yew tree is centre stage, decorated with, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Decorating the Christmas tree, 1938.
– In the household of Queen Caroline, maligned consort of George IV, Germans set up Christmas trees bright with candles and hung with presents for English children of the palace.

1840 – A thriving market for pine-tops are sold at a market in Manchester by German immigrants.


1841 – Prince Albert introduces a bedecked tree into seasonal royal festivities writing, “Today I have two children of my own to give present to who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.”

1845 – First illustration of a Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News on 27 December 1845 accompanying a report on a celebration given by the London Mission Society at the Temperance Hall in Cripplegate for the benefit of 400 London children.  Their enjoyment “was crowned especially by the exhibition of a German Christmas tree, or Tree of Love, which was erected upon the stage of the Hall.”

Christmas tree at the Temperance Hall, 1845

1848 – One of the ILN’s most famous pictures is published in its 23 December issue and leads to the popularisation of the Christmas tree.  The engraving is accompanied by the following explanation of the tree as, “that which is annually prepared by her Majesty’s command for the Royal Children.  Similar trees are arranged in other apartments of the Castle for her Majesty, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and the Royal household.  Her Majesty’s tree is furnished by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, whilst that of the Prince is furnished according to the taste of her Majesty.”

Queen Victoria's Christmas tree

1851 – Although Christmas trees have been introduced to America by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the tradition becomes widespread in this year when a woodsman called Mark Carr begins selling trees from Catskills at what will become Mark Carr’s Corner in New York.

1854 – A giant Christmas tree is erected at Crystal Palace.  Christmas trees for sale in Covent Garden market pictured in The Illustrated London News.

Christmas trees in Covent Garden Market, London

1864 – William Chambers writes of the Christmas tree, “the custom has been introduced into England with the greatest success”

1914 – On the Western Front in December 1914, small decorated Christmas trees are used as signs of a temporary truce by German soldiers.


1930 – Artificial Christmas trees were made from dyed goose feathers in 19th century Germany, but in 1930 a British-based Addis Housewares Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes.  (Aluminium foil Christmas trees appear in America in 1958).

1947 – A large Christmas tree is gifted to Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.  Given annually, the tree is the central focus of Christmas carol-singing in Trafalgar Square every year.


2017 – Mary Evans Picture Library has almost 2000 pictures on their website charting the legends and history of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Shopping


Festive old Father Christmas

Nowadays, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are a more or less interchangeable festive character, typifying the spirit of good Christmas cheer.

‘Twas not ever thus however. In Britain, the 19th century Victorian revival of Christmas customs reinvigorated a folkloric figure of old Father Christmas that owed much to mummers plays, the Merry England of Walter Scott’s 1808 poem Marmion, and Thomas Hervey’s 1836 Book of Christmas. Hervey’s Father Christmas is dressed in a long robe and wears a holly crown, while his followers include Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, Wassail, Misrule and the Lord of Twelfth Night.

A Christmas parade by Alfred Crowquill
A Christmas Parade by Alfred Crowquill, from the Illustrated London News, December 1844, shows some of these characters processing through the snow.


We have other similar depictions of Father Christmas in the mid-19th century from the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Times, which show the holly-adorned merrymaker having a pretty hedonistic time.

"Heaven Bless you Merry Gentlefolks let Nothing You Dismay," Page of Victorian men and women getting into the Christmas spirit! indulging themselves in food, drink and dance.
(Left) Jolly Old Christmas by Smyth in the Illustrated London News December 1844. (Right) Merry Christmas! by Kenny Meadows in A Holiday Book for Christmas and the New Year, 1840s


The figure of Santa Claus originated in the Dutch-American communities of the USA, with the 4th century Saint Nicholas giving us the name from the Dutch dialect word Sinterklaas. He was associated with the present-giving theme for good children much more than the English Father Christmas. Santa’s character was developed by Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas, otherwise known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. Many familiar motifs appear in this poem, including Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, his toys-via-chimney delivery preference, and his rosy cheeks, round belly and white beard. But his diminutive stature described in the poem (which logically he’d need for a trip down the chimney) hasn’t survived to the present day.

Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of 1931 depict the ‘jolly old elf’ St Nick


The later 19th century started to see a blurring of distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus, and the crown of holly was sometimes replaced by a hood. In 1879 the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News commented, “he is generally a rollicking, robust old gentleman, with a wreath of holly round his head, a warm robe of brown trimmed with fur…I have also seen him in the window of a sweet-stuff shop with a hood over his venerable head”. In the States, caricaturist Thomas Nast’s version of Santa in Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s, further refined the image of modern Santa although it’s notable he still has the holly crown.

A pot-bellied Father Christmas with lots of presents. Date: circa 1870
Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1860s

The vibrant red that Santa has worn exclusively since around the 1930s was not his sole colour choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Father Christmas on cards and scraps can often be found in a rainbow of colours from green to blue to violet, as well as in brown and white. Red, the colour associated with St Nicholas (and a Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the early thirties), won through convincingly in the end.

Portrait of Father Christmas on a Christmas card
(Left) In green on a Christmas and New Year card, c.1890s. (Centre) In blue on a Christmas card with holly, C.1900s. (Right) In purple delivering presents on a postcard, 1908.

Santa Claus on a Christmas card

(Left) In white on a Victorian scrap. (Centre) In brown on a Christmas card, c.1890s. The goat is an interesting inclusion, chiming with Thomas Hervey’s 1836 personification of Old Father Christmas riding a yule goat. (Right) In red delivering presents, Lizzie (Lawson) Mack in ‘Old Father Christmas’, 1889.

Open All Hours – 12 amazing shop front displays from history

We’re all familiar with the closing credits of ‘Open All Hours’ when Arkwright, played by Ronnie Barker, goes through the daily chore of dismantling his display of wares before shutting up shop for the evening.  Image then, if you will, the hours it might have taken to put together – and then dismantle – some of these shop fronts?  While the art of retail display might still be seen daily on our high streets, very few can match the level of extravagance masterminded by some Victorian and Edwardian shopkeepers, whose penchant for fussy and highly populated displays mirrored conventional tastes in interior design and fashion.  Butchers and poulterers seem particularly prone to boastful displays, while grocers err towards carefully composed symmetrical layouts using boxes of tea and soap powder.  They obviously took pride in their creations as many photographs show employees, smart in long aprons, posed in front of gleaming windows or just visible among expertly butchered carcasses.

We’ve created a top 12 of our favourite shop front displays from history.  Scroll down to see who occupies the top spot.

12.) The shop window of Schmidt’s famous German delicatessen on Charlotte Street, London, with a vast variety of tinned and preserved goods on display, a taste of ‘Germany in London’.


11.) Morecambe tourist shop selling everything from hoops to prams.


10.) Graham and Withers butchers shop, Bromley, Kent.  Definitely wins the prize for most grisly.

Graham and Withers butchers shop, Bromley, Kent

9.) Shop front in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

Extraordinary array of game and fish with local butcher

8.) Mr Horner the Butcher sitting proudly in front of his magnificent display of flesh and fowl waiting for the Christmas rush.


7.) A little OCD evident from the look of the window of the Maypole Dairy in Greenwich.


6.) Undies galore at the Parisian Corset Company Ltd.


5.) Display of meat outside a butcher’s shop (unidentified location) with butcher, centre, brandishing a knife in case we should be in any doubt who’s responsible for all those first prize awards.


4.)  Luggage shop in Paddington, London.


3.) Best foot forward. Cobbler’s shop front, St David’s, Pembrokeshire, South Wales.

Cobbler's shop front, St David's, Pembrokeshire, South Wales

2.) Butcher’s shop in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The turkeys (joined by rabbits & a lone pig) are so numerous they literally cover the entire building.

Turkeys galore outside a butcher in High Wycombe

1.) Never knowingly underadvertised. The marvellously named Herbert Fudge, Newsagent, Stationer and Tobacconist of 313 Lee High Road, London.

Herbert Fudge Newsagent 1922

Bizarre Best Wishes – the Weird & Wonderful World of Victorian Christmas cards

Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

10997093: Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

For any student of Christmas festive facts, they will know that first Christmas card was designed in 1846 by John Calcott Horsley at the request of Sir Henry Cole, later Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  About one thousand hand-coloured copies were produced, printed by Mr. Jobbins of Holborn and published by Joseph Cundall of Old Bond Street.  The design incorporated two scenes of charity flanking a central picture of a typically Victorian family cheerily raising a glass to toast the recipient of the card.  Although Horsley’s card is the acknowledged ‘first’ Christmas design, another, even earlier card, was designed by Mr. W. N. Egley, and sent by the artist to friends and family in 1842.  Whichever can claim to be truly the first Christmas card, they triggered a trend that became a festive tradition as familiar as trees and mince pies.

These early examples had been private ventures but by the 1860s the firm of Messrs. Goodall had begun to issue Christmas cards to the trade.  In the decades that followed, Christmas card sending rose to prodigious proportions.   During the Christmas period of 1882 for example, more than 14,000,000 letters and packages were delivered in the London area alone.  Such was the demand for new designs of good quality that in 1879, card publishers Raphael Tuck held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with well-known Academicians as judges and 500 guineas in prizes.  The contest attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second and grander competition, judged by Sir John Millais and Marcus Stone, was held in 1882.  This time £5000 was awarded in prizes.  The result was that many famous artists, including Stone, George Clausen, G. D. Leslie and W. F. Yeames, entered the Christmas card market, with one firm paying out £7000 for drawings in a single season.  Years later, a 1936 interview with Desmond Tuck of Raphael Tuck published in The Sphere, revealed that each season the company rose to the challenge of creating no fewer than 3000 original Christmas card designs, achieving this with a permanent staff of fifteen designers, freelance commissions from outside artists and licensing works from art galleries and museums.  Tuck were undoubtedly market leaders.  They exclusively produced the royal family’s Christmas cards each year and ensured that the designs were distributed to the press who duly published them (many featured patriotic scenes or historic royals from the past), and they pioneered novelty cards alongside more sedate, traditional designs.  In 1901, The Tatler magazine commented on a box of Christmas cards sent by the canny marketeers at Raphael Tuck:

“All Raphael Tuck’s cards are pretty and artistic, but what struck me as the most ingenious were the expanding cards, i.e., those cards by which a slight manipulation can be transformed into ships, soldiers and horses of a real shape and form.”

An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

11657256: An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

10021527: Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

11657260: The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

Several examples were shown but it is notable that not one single card appears to us to be particularly festive – there are donkeys on the sands of a coastal resort, a Chinese pleasure boat, circus horses and their riders,  a man-o-war in full dress and eighteenth century dandies carrying a lady in a sedan chair.  Not a single snowflake or twinkling bauble in sight.

211657259 (left): Adolph Tuck, Sir Adolph Tuck, 1st Baronet (1854-1926), fine art publisher and chairman of Raphael Tuck & Sons, pictured with his son passing a design for a Christmas card in 1903
10999514 (right): Invoice from Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, to Mr Frank Blackley, for the supply of one hundred greetings cards, total cost ten shillings and ten pence.

We have an eye-bogglingly varied array of historic Christmas cards in the archive representing this rich period in card publishing.  Many have arrived via our representation of the fabulously bonkers David Pearson Collection featuring designs that range from the mildly inappropriate to the unashamedly weird, most from the late 19th and early 20th century.  We may blame our modern-day sensibilities and taste for laughing at such unfathomable festive themes, but even in 1894, Gleeson White, editor of The Studio, wrote a monograph on Christmas cards in which he commented on the increasingly bizarre and inappropriate styles of card available to consumers.

“It is amusing to note the pictorial accompaniments, considered fit to illustrate the very mundane wish for a ‘A Happy Christmas’.  To accompany this prosaic and wholly carnal greeting we find, often, monsters of nightmareland, pictures of accidents dear to the farce writer, and in short, the subjects, which are in vulgar parlance weird and alarming on the one hand and distinctly uncomfortable on the other.”

Gleeson White, aesthetically sensitive, might have been particularly averse to ‘jokey’ and strangely macabre cards but there was undoubtedly a market at a time when the scale of card-sending meant that designers had to cast about for novel ideas and not all card buyers were discerning enough to prefer the worthy work of an Academician.   Nevertheless, whoever came up with murderous frogs and dead robins, cards in the shape of a hand gun or plucked turkeys lying limp and lifeless on kitchen scales, had perhaps spent rather too long at the drawing board, scraping the brandy barrel of festive ideas.  We don’t care.  Whether it’s Christmas or not, weird Christmas cards continue to be a source of great mirth and amusement at the library.  We’re just waiting for a mischievous someone to select some for a cool and off-beat Christmas card selection box.  We’ll be at the front of the queue.


A saw on a Christmas card -- the basis of a fairly excruciating pun. Date: circa 1890s


Little dog with a toy gun on a New Year card. circa 1890s

4  A frog murders another frog for money - a somewhat bizarre Christmas subject ! Date: circa 1880