History

The Fascinating World of Victorian Cards & Postcards

Ruxi Rusu 7 February 2024 min Read

Who doesn’t enjoy receiving a postcard from a loved one? An alternative to sending formal letters, postcards were first introduced during the Victorian age, expanding the ways in which Victorians communicated with one another. Today, we cherish that legacy and continue the long tradition of sending postcards and cards to our friends and family members, especially on special occasions. In this article, we look at the fascinating world of Victorian cards and postcards by exploring their history.

Little Bits of Postcard History: First Postcards and Evolution

The first British postcards appeared in 1870. They came in two different sizes and were inspired by Austro-Hungarian cards, which were the first ones to be introduced in Europe the previous year. Renouncing the seriousness of formal letters, this informal and inexpensive type of correspondence rose in popularity in the following decades. By 1910, near the end of King Edward VII’s reign, more than 800 million postcards a year were sent within the country.

Victorian postcards: Postcard (front), 10 January 1893. The Postal Museum.

Postcard (front), 10 January 1893. The Postal Museum.

Their design changed over time, reflecting changing moods of society. Although private publishers produced illustrated postcards earlier, the Post Office did not officially welcome them until 1894. Also, because one side of the card was reserved solely for the stamp and address, the message had to be tightly written alongside the image, making the design somewhat awkward.

The Seaside: A Popular Vacation Destination

Besides urban landscapes, the first examples of illustrated postcards featured pictures of the seaside. As more and more people were able to afford a day off work to travel to the British coast, postcards were used to send messages to loved ones. These were decorated with images of the British seaside, piers, deckchairs, and donkeys (donkey riding was quite popular back in the day!).

Victorian postcards: Palace Pier, Brighton Postcard postcard, 1902. The Postal Museum.

Palace Pier, Brighton Postcard postcard, 1902. The Postal Museum.

Holiday Specials: Spreading the Joy of Christmas!

Similar to regular postcards, a creative and amusing way to spread the joy of the holidays were Victorian Christmas cards. Initially these were quite costly for the average Victorian to buy. However, through technological innovation and progress, by the end of the 19th century they could be produced cheaply and purchased for as little as one penny.

Victorian postcards: Greeting card, John Callcott Horsley, 1843, England, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Greeting card, John Callcott Horsley, 1843, England, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Though the typical Christmas imagery depicted on Victorian cards included robins, wintry scenes, and feasts, some cards were more peculiar, featuring dead animals, for instance.

Many cards also revealed images of numerous beloved Victorian Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas cracker. They came in different shapes and sizes and incorporated joyful, cordial, or humorous Christmas messages. Some of these might seem unusual today, like this one: “Cheshire Cheese/Your dinner to ease/When you spend a Jolly Xmas.”

AdVertisment

Divination and Other Practices: Halloween Night

Halloween was another important holiday often featured on Victorian postcards. These were illustrated with pictures of famous Victorian Halloween beliefs and traditions, including much-adored fortune-telling games, or ducking for apples.

Divination was also associated with this pagan celebration. At the time, many believed that mirrors were portals to the spirit world, allowing young women to view their future spouses.

AdVertisment

A New Love Language: Stamps

Illustrated postcards were delivered without an envelope. As a result, Victorian correspondents found ingenious ways to keep their personal lives private. For example, they invented a new mode of communication by angling stamps in different directions to convey various secret messages, such as “I love you”.

Victorian postcards: Pictured postcard with the poem You ask me why I love you, 28 June 1906. The Postal Museum, London, UK.

Pictured postcard with the poem You ask me why I love you, 28 June 1906. The Postal Museum, London, UK.

Postcards from the former British Empire: Australia

After the first postcards were introduced in Europe, other parts of the world soon followed in its steps, including one of the former British colonies, Australia, in 1875.

Despite the increase in mass production of inferior quality postcards, artists continued to be commissioned to create images for postcard series. Many of these showcased Australian locations as well as local flora and fauna.

Victorian postcards: Australia. Manly Beach. Sydney postcard, 1905-1906. Jesof Lebovic Gallery.

Australia. Manly Beach. Sydney postcard, 1905-1906. Jesof Lebovic Gallery.

The postcards issued in Australia from this period are also incredibly informative, revealing the relations between the two countries. One particular set of cards is the “Hands Clasped across the Sea” series, designed to illustrate the great distance between the United Kingdom and its former colonies, including Australia and New Zealand. These were very affectionate, with many of them including tender messages.

Victorian postcards: Hands Across the Sea postcard, c. 1910, National Library of Australia. ABC.

Hands Across the Sea postcard, c. 1910, National Library of Australia. ABC.

Final Thoughts

These colorful and imaginatively designed Victorian cards and postcards provide a clearer image of the past by offering us surprising insights into the lives of Victorians. Ranging from sentimental to morbid, Victorian cards, simple as they may be, enrich our understanding of the Victorian world, with their subjects, purposes, and humor varying from series to series in unexpected ways.

If you want to feel more like a Victorian, send your loved ones a postcard too! From Italian Renaissance to Japanese Art, we invite you to explore our broad selection of artsy DailyArt postcard sets in the DailyArt Shop.

Bibliography

1.

150 years of the postcard, Australian Post Collectibles, 2019. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

2.

A brief history of (weird and wonderful) Victorian Christmas cards, 2022, Victoria and Albert Museum, Youtube. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

3.

Postcard History, Postcard Traders Association. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

4.

Postcards, The Postal Museum. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

5.

Georgina Tomlinson, Seaside Postcards, 2021, The Postal Museum. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

6.

Victorian Halloween Postcards, Mark Lawson Antiques, 2015. Accessed: 6 Sep 2023.

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