Over 130 Years of Vintage Christmas Cards

The practice of exchanging greeting cards has a very long history, but the modern Christmas card tradition really got its start in the 1840s. Changes in postal services made it affordable for ordinary people to send each other cards, and developments in printing technologies gradually made it cheaper to produce cards commercially. Plus, Queen Victoria was doing it, which is how a surprising number of our modern Christmas traditions became popular. In Australia, it wasn’t until the 1880s that sending Christmas cards started to reach the heights of popularity. For most of Western Australia’s post-colonial history, people have been sending and receiving Christmas cards, and the State Library of Western Australia holds a surprisingly large number of them.

Early Western Australian Christmas cards

To modern eyes, early Christmas cards from Western Australia don’t seem all that Christmassy. One of the earliest dated cards in our collection was produced by the Perth Postal and Telegraph Company in 1887, and was part of a tradition of Postal Services around the world exchanging Christmas courtesies between themselves. The card features sketches of Perth and Fremantle, and also of a pearling fleet. The Western Mail at the time described the imagery as “suggestive of the youth and vigor of this young country.” This card is part of a larger collection of greeting cards collected by Emily Prinsep, and came to the library as part of the Prinsep family papers.

Others were more like picture postcards showing places or events throughout the year, with Christmas messages attached. These two examples show views of Mounts Bay Road and the Narrow with inserts of a cycling race from around 1896; and a view of Perth esplanade on June 20th 1897, with festivities for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. They may have been produced by early photographers as a way of advertising their services or reselling existing images, but from a modern perspective it can be hard to see the Christmas connection.

One early card that is more Christmassy features a setting of an original Christmas carol, estimated to date from about 1890. The lyrics are by Henry Ebenezer Clay, who was a notable but somewhat uncelebrated Western Australian poet. The music was written by Sir William Robinson, who served three times as Governor of Western Australia; from 1875 to 1877, 1880 to 1883, and 1890 to 1895. Robinson was quite a well-regarded composer, and a number of his songs were popular in Australia at the time.

Increasing variety of Christmas cards

By the early 20th Century, a wide range of consumer cards were available and being exchanged by Western Australians. In the collection of records from the Young Australia League is an album of Christmas cards and other greetings, mostly sent to the League’s founder J.J. Simons from around 1911 to 1914. This shows the diversity of cards which were being sent at the time, including items designed and printed in Western Australia. Much of the imagery was still about the place the card was sent from, or floral and springtime. In fact, some cards came with small packets of seeds for the plants which they represented.

Floral images were featured on the very first commercial Christmas cards produced in Australia, and local flowers remained a popular theme. Amongst others, this card produced by the WA State Government Printer in 1912 features a rich illustration of Western Australian wildflowers.

Businesses were getting in on the act, as well. Many corporate Christmas cards were fairly plain, not much more than calling cards, but there were creative solutions too. The property company Peet and Company was one. While they had their fair share of serious cards, in the 1920s the company produced a novelty cheque for the payment of “ten thousand good wishes for Christmas and the New Year” for their Christmas messages.

Handmade Christmas cards

While there was a rich marketplace of commercially-produced cards available in the early 20th Century, it was not uncommon to send handmade cards as well, particularly if you were of an artistic bent. The artist and illustrator Amy Heap made this delightful view of the Swan River for a Christmas card in 1913. It was found in the collection of Frank Allum, who was Chief Clerk and later Deputy Master of the Perth Mint. Both Heap and Allum were members of the West Australian Society of Arts, and it is likely that the card was exchanged in that context.

We also hold a substantial collection of handmade cards produced by the “Brierley girls” in the 1920s. These were probably the daughters of the Brierley family who settled at Balangup, on the Frankland River west of Mount Barker, in 1913. Many members of the family were skilful artists, and these handmade cards certainly demonstrate that. The images are heavily European, but then the family had only emigrated from England about ten years prior to making the cards. These cards were later sent en masse to William Elsey, the Bishop of Kalgoorlie, and it’s in the Elsey family papers that they came to the library. Elsey had first met the Brierley family as an itinerant Clergyman in the Diocese of Bunbury, and they remained family friends.

Celebration under adversity

Some of the more poignant cards in the State Library of Western Australia’s collection come from people celebrating under challenging circumstances. In the collection of Major A.E. Saggers are handmade Christmas cards exchanged between Australian soldiers who were prisoners of war in Singapore in 1943 and 1944. Saggers wrote a memoir of his experiences, and by 1944 his unit had already been captured in Singapore, sent to work building the Burma-Thailand railway, and been returned to Singapore after its completion. What’s striking about these cards is how good-natured they are, and how the senders managed to find positivity and even humour in trying conditions.

Modern Christmas cards

By the 1950s, what we would recognise as contemporary Christmas imagery was becoming established in Western Australian Christmas cards.

Percy Dix established the printing company Dix Print in the early 20th Century, and went on to make a tradition of producing humourous Christmas cards with his face on them every year. By the 1950s, these included familiar Christmas images such as wreaths and Santa Claus outfits.

Religious imagery seems less common that you might expect in the Christmas cards in the State Library’s collection. The exception, of course, is cards sent from religious organisations. This card was sent by the Parish of Williams, in the Western Australian wheatbelt, in 1952. It is part of a substantial collection of greeting cards collected by the Haynes family, who had farmed in the Williams and Quindanning districts since the late 19th Century.

The second half of the 20th Century also saw a flourishing of businesses sending Christmas cards. There are myriad examples, but some are found in the records of the Swan Brewery. These cards were sent in the 1960s, and feature images of various buildings that the brewery had operated from, including the art deco building on Mounts Bay Road which no longer exists today.

New Christmas cards

New Christmas cards are still being produced all the time, and the State Library regularly collects new cards. One recent example from the State Library’s collection is a series of cards commissioned by the William Street Collective in 2012. These feature local Western Australian artists such as Luisa Hansal, Anya Brock, Jen Garland, Martin E. Willis, The Yok and Lisa Max, and were available for free from various sites along William Street, just outside the State Library of Western Australia itself.

Much more to discover

In 1888, a Melbourne journalist predicted that “the Christmas card craze has reached its climax and will probably decline.”  In the 130 years since that prediction, Christmas cards certainly didn’t decline, and were created and exchanged in enormous numbers. At the State Library of Western Australia, Christmas cards can be found in our ephemera collections, in our pictorial collections, and spread throughout the private archives collections as items received or created by individuals and businesses. In writing this piece, it became apparent just how many Christmas cards the State Library holds, and we have only scratched the surface. There is so much more to discover, but then that’s true of all of our collections.

Musically prepare yourself for Christmas at the State Library

All your musical sheet music needs for Christmas can be met by the State Library. Come and borrow a book of carols for your choir, something for your busking ensemble, or some interesting piano arrangements to wow the family on Christmas Day. Have a look at our web page on Christmas Music and “have yourself a merry little Christmas…”

Boans Father Christmas with a group of girls, 1930

Silver bells and shepherds

Christmas comes but once a year and brings with it months of preparation, particulary with music. There are carols and songs to learn in choirs, schools, churches and ensembles. New music is written and the old favourites are rolled out with surprising regularity. Come and visit the State Library for all your Christmas sheet music needs.  Our web site gives you a brief overview of our collection, and links to some useful web sites for further information including copyright issues.

Visit us for your Christmas sheet music needs

Can you believe it’s that time of the year again?  If you’re looking for Christmas music to play on your piano, flute, sax, harmonica, accordion or even that brass band that you’ve got hidden in the back shed, the State Library can probably help you. We’ve brought all our Christmas music together in one place so you can trawl through to your heart’s content. You can borrow sheet music directly from the State Library building. If you are looking for a particular song or carol, use our online Song Index to track a copy in an anthology.

Christmas Philanthropy

Did you know you can access a wealth of full text business newspaper and magazine articles using the State Library’s subscriptions?

At Christmas it’s great to see that not all business people are cold hearted Scrooges! From the Library’s business databases, we looked for this year’s articles on Christmas philanthropy.  We were touched by the story of Larry Stewart –  “Kansas City Secret Santa”.

You can look for more articles on this or other business topics – from the State Library’s website, select databases from home  select Business Source Elite or A&NZ Reference Centre, get out your local public library card (Western Australians only!) and and follow the instructions to look for more stories of Christmas philanthropy.

Which shepherds watching their flocks?

Did you know that some of the most popular Christmas carols and songs have more than one tune? Lyrics such as Away in a manger, While shepherds watched, Joy to the world and O little town of Bethlehem have been set to music by different composers.  Here at the State Library, our Song Index will help you find the sheet music to the version and the key you want.  Just pop the title into the search box http://henrietta.liswa.wa.gov.au/search~S8/t and a list of the versions will present. Simply chose a title, click on the link, and have a look at the music to see if it’s the tune you are after. All our Christmas music is sitting cosily together for your convenience waiting to go to a happy home for the festive season. We’ve a great range, from O holy night to Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Come in, join and borrow today.

Santa in 1938

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This year’s Christmas pageant is on Saturday 8 December 2007 at 8.30pm. The channel 7 Christmas pageant started in 1972, but this was not the first! We have a number of photographs from a Christmas pageant in 1938, including this one on the South Perth foreshore (017011PD).

To view this photograph and others from the 1938 Christmas pageant go to our catalogue.

Have the Perth Christmas lights changed since 1955?

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This photograph is available from the State Library of Western Australia online pictorial collection.  It was taken on Murray Street around 1955.   Its online number is 270980PD. 

For more photographs of Perth Christmas decorations, search under the subject heading ‘Christmas decorations — Western Australia — Perth’.