Wednesday, 23 December 2015


We've reached the last day of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards! The final card I'd like to share with you has a design of some naughty kittens in bed:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The verse says:

While laurel boughs and berries red,
Glow bright on every side.
Oh, be their freshness o'er thee shed
And cheer your Holly-tide!

All that remains for me to do is to wish you and yours a happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Today is day 11 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards and I thought I'd share a very traditional-looking design of the Nativity with you. This is a three-dimensional card from the 1890s and this is the front when the card is flat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
 This is what the card looks like when it's fully open:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card was published by Raphael Tuck & Sons. As well as being a three-dimensional card, it's also a novelty card. If you shine a light through the blue cellophane-like material which represents the window, it illuminates the baby Jesus.

Monday, 21 December 2015


Now we've reached day 10 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, it's about time that I share a mechanical card with you. Victorian Christmas card designers were ingenious in their designs and inventions and all manner of pop-up style cards appeared. This is one of my favourites: an embossed black cat. This is what the card looks like from the front when fully closed.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card opens out to reveal a brilliant concertina cat:

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Sunday, 20 December 2015


Today is day 9 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards and I have another image of a shaped card to share. This one's in the shape of an envelope with a rose seal.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The clue to what you'll find underneath the seal is in the dog collar at the top:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
 The card is dated 1890 on the reverse and was sent to 'Master Hippo' from Annie.

Saturday, 19 December 2015


For day 8 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards, here's a very unusual card. Look away if you're scared of spiders! In a circular shape, the design is of a large spider on its web with a fly approaching:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The verse isn't clear at all on the scan but it says:

Will you walk into my parlour
Said the spider to the fly.
I've a very nice plum pudding
And a beautiful Mince pie.

Friday, 18 December 2015


In today's card for 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, I'd like to share another card with an animal design. This one is dated 1884 and it was published by Louis Prang & Co., Boston. A group of owls and rabbits are playing blind man's buff by moonlight.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
In case you can't read the verse, it says:

By loving friends you are surrounded,
Oh, be not blind to this, I pray.
They wish that joy and mirth unbounded
May crown your happy Christmas day.

Thursday, 17 December 2015


On Day 6 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, here's an example of the Victorians' often very odd sense of humour.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
The card looks very unassuming with a baby's bottle design but it opens up to reveal this:

Copyright Michelle Higgs
Imagine receiving this card as a 'soother' for Christmas! This is a very late Victorian or early Edwardian card published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015


Today, I'd like to share an image of a shaped Victorian Christmas card. These are my favourite types of cards because they're all so different and unusual. This one has a Yule log design.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

Dating from the 1880s, the card is entirely flat but it's embossed and has a three-dimensional effect. 'Bringing in the Yule log' was a tradition when a large log was brought home on Christmas Eve and burned for the 12 nights of Christmas until Twelfth Night.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015


Today, it's Day 4 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas Cards and we return to the anthropomorphic theme - I did warn you!

This card from the late 1880s is signed RD for Robert Dudley and it's published by Castell Bros. In case you can't read the verse, it says:

In spring the cuckoo calls, in summer swallow twits.
Plump goose to autumn falls, winter brisk robin fits. 

The sender has hand-written in the 'from' section:

The Town Friend the swallow
To the Country Friend the cuckoo.

Monday, 14 December 2015


On Day 3 of 12 Days of Victorian Christmas cards, here's a design that doesn't look very Christmasy at all: a chick with a special message.

Copyright Michelle Higgs
This slightly scary card is dated 1878 and is published by R. Canton. The design was part of a set which also included parrots, mice, cats and dogs. This is the card that first got me interested in Victorian Christmas cards, not just because of the unusual design but because it has a very cryptic message on the reverse. As mentioned yesterday, until the 1890s, most Victorian cards were flat, not folded, and the sender wrote a greeting on the back.

Copyright Michelle Higgs

In case you can't read it, the message says:

Good-bye! I leave on Sunday next - fare thee well!!! 
Ato Acton [not sure of these words]
23 - 12 - 78

It's difficult to work out the two words above the date because the way the letters are written is inconsistent. But the message has always intrigued me: who was the sender? Did he or she and the recipient ever meet again? All very intriguing...

Sunday, 13 December 2015


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.

Saturday, 12 December 2015


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. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


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.