DAY 2: 12 DAYS OF VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARDS

Yesterday, I shared an image of a Victorian Christmas card featuring rabbits riding penny farthings. Today, I’d like to show you a more ‘typical’ design of a child enjoying winter pursuits.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Here we have a young girl with her dog skating on the ice (probably a frozen river or lake), complete with a very stylish muff! This card is a typical design from the late 1860s and early 1870s; it has a scalloped edge and it’s relatively small, about the same size as a visiting card that the Victorians left at people’s houses to show they had called.

By the 1880s, children made up a good proportion of the target market so it was very common to see Christmas card designs featuring children. As mentioned yesterday, Victorian toy shops were one of the types of retail outlet which sold Christmas cards.

At first, Victorian Christmas cards were completely different from modern versions because they weren’t folded; they were flat and the sender wrote a message on the reverse. It was not until the 1890s that the folded card became popular.

DAY 1: 12 DAYS OF VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS CARDS

Last year, in the run-up to Christmas, I shared some images of Victorian Christmas cards from my small collection (my very first book was a Shire book on collecting cards). People seemed to like these images so I’ve selected twelve more unusual, humorous or downright odd cards to show you. Hope it’s a good antidote to the madness of Christmas shopping…

On Day 1, I give you rabbits riding bicycles! Penny farthings, to be precise. These bunnies are extremely good at multi-tasking because some of them are also playing trumpets!

Copyright Michelle Higgs

In case you can’t make out the verse, it says:

By “Rabbit” Transit ‘mid snow and icicles
We bring our Christmas wishes on bicycles.

The Victorians loved to put animals on their Christmas cards and they particularly enjoyed making them anthropomorphic, like these rabbit cyclists. I have quite a few cards with anthropomorphic designs so I’m sure you’ll be seeing a few more!

Just a quick recap about the history of Christmas cards: 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.

VICTORIAN PRISON BABIES

Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.

In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison.  We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.

‘A Baby’s Cot’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother’s conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.

Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.

How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that “in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born – more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town.”

‘Baby Parade’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The journalist added:

“Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. 

High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother’s arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche.” 

‘In the Women’s Work Room’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London , 1901)

If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby’s cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners’ workroom and they could rock their infants’ cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There’s also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners – this is the only place I’ve ever seen a surviving one of these.