Seasonal Good Wishes: Christmas Cards in our Collections

By Gwyneth Endersby, Record Assistant

The giving and receiving of cards at Christmas expressing seasonal good wishes has been popular for 177 years – a quickly established tradition, once begun, that followed swiftly on the heels of the sending of Valentine’s cards. More recently, the virtual exchange of Christmas wishes via E-Cards has added another dimension to this tradition.


The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, tell us that the first ever Christmas card in England was sent in 1843 by Henry Cole, the museum’s founder. He devised sending multiple copies as a quick, yet cheerful, form of communication during a busy time of year. Adorned with a scene celebrating the highly esteemed values of family and charity, his cards were also commercially produced. The idea became fashionable among the middle classes during the 1840s and on through the decades of the 19th century. As other Victorian Christmas traditions introduced by Prince Albert – like decorated Christmas trees – also became popular and commercialised, more affordable versions of greetings cards became available. After the Half Penny Post was launched in 1894, they became even more widespread.

Some of the collections we hold include a number of Christmas cards saved amongst personal or private papers. Some senders helpfully jotted down the year in their cards, though many did not, yet the covering dates of the collections of papers containing the cards help to provide some level of context. They all, in general, appear to be pre-WWII examples.


The styles and designs of those we hold range widely, though none are the typically late Victorian versions depicting a brightly coloured Santa Claus with toys or heavily laden Christmas trees. Our examples are nevertheless Christmas-themed – often featuring scenes and tokens we traditionally associate with Christmas card illustrations: snow, robins, cosy homesteads, holly and mistletoe. All contain sentimental verses, extolling friendship and bestowing seasonal good fortune on the recipient. Many also depict springtime flowers, regarded as an important symbol of renewed life after barren midwinter – a feature not evident on modern-day Christmas cards.

The largest number of Christmas cards pertaining to one collection is within the correspondence to and from Flora Howdle, dated 1900-1915. These papers (which include postcards, cards, letters and a notebook) are a deposit within the “Other Bodies” records of Harrogate Borough Council [DC/HRG XXIII 29/3]. Flora worked as a nurse at Menston Hospital from 1900-1920, and thus during the years of the Great War. Menston Hospital was then High Royd’s Asylum – the pauper lunatic asylum near Leeds, changing its name to Menston Mental Hospital during the 1920s. The eight cards in Flora’s collection are decorated with pastel shaded flowers, holly, paper lace (some metallic), embossed patterns and homely rural scenes. There are also colourful lino/woodcut examples.


Christmas cards retained amongst the personal papers (1934-1982) of Sir Richard Bellingham Graham, of Norton Conyers [ZKZ], include those received from Spain and Germany, and a modified Victoria & Albert Museum postcard of Nicholas Hilliard Miniature Portrait of a Gentleman, sent by Beatrice (whom Richard married, née Spencer-Smith).

The senders date none, except for a colourfully metallic card in 1935. An interesting example included with the cards is a Christmas Day Dinner menu card, from the Mayfair Hotel in 1939, autographed by Sir Richard’s fellow diners. With this year being the outset of WWII, one wonders if this party was to meet in this way again.

ZKZ 4/1/10/2 (1935)

ZKZ 4/1/10/2 (1939)

A late 19th century scrapbook relating to the Peckitt family, in the Pickard Peckitt collection (ZTJ), contains a small number of Christmas and New Year cards. Spring flowers predominate in these colourful examples.

ZTJ 23/3

The smallest card discovered in our collections so far, is one measuring just 11cm x 7cm. It is hand painted with flowers and ivy on an evergreen-coloured background, and contains a printed Christmas verse inside. It bears no date, and does not appear to have been used – at least, it is not signed. It is among the correspondence, accounts and papers of Edward Cherry, mining agent from 1875-1928, in the Draycott Hall MSS Collection (ZLB).

Christmas cards sometimes indicate the place from which they are being sent, like this jaunty example featuring North Yorkshire’s county town, Northallerton. Bestowing good luck and seasonal wishes, it is hand-dated 1935.

                                       Temporary deposit: reproduced by permission of Mrs Joyce Render

Other personalised examples we hold include a number of Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club greeting cards from the WWI years (ZMY), and one from Northallerton-born artist Arthur Bell-Foster (1901-1978) featuring a photograph of himself (Z.1491).

Left: ZMY 1917, Right: Z.1491 Arthur Bell-Foster

Whichever way we choose to communicate good wishes this Christmas, be it through a posted card, or virtually, this year more than ever we will appreciate keeping in touch.

Further reading:

The Victoria & Albert Museum

One thought on “Seasonal Good Wishes: Christmas Cards in our Collections

  1. When I emptied my parent’s house I found carrier bags of Christmas Cards, one bag for each year, and there were several, they obviously could not bear to throw them away, perhaps I should have sent them to the archives !

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