State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 84 December 2009


Michael Aitken
Early Australian Christmas Cards and some
examples produced in Victoria preserved by
the Murtoa postmaster

J C Horsley's design for the world's first Christmas card, printed in London, 1843.


The Universal Custom of sending Christmas cards has a long and well-established history. It is one of the enduring ways in which we celebrate the festive season. There have been many claims for the creation of the first Christmas card, and undoubtedly unrecorded hand-drawn examples would occasionally have been made from early times. It is now generally accepted, however, that the first printed Christmas card appeared in England in 1843. This was designed by John Callcott Horsley, a Royal Academician, on the initiative of Henry Cole, a noted London figure of the mid-nineteenth century. Later knighted Cole was the principal instigator of the Great International Exhibition of London in 1851, and he was subsequently instrumental in the development of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
He asked Horsley to design the card as he was too busy to write to all his friends at Christmas. The card was lithographed and hand-coloured, and showed a family
enjoying their Christmas feast, with appropriate seasonal text. One thousand copies were printed and those not required by Cole were sold by the printers for one shilling each.1
Nevertheless, even with the introduction of cheap postage and rapid improvements in transport, the sending of Christmas cards was not popular at first. We have to wait until the 1870s, a time when inexpensive chromolithographic printing became widely available, for the advent of mass production of greeting cards. By this time the elaborate Valentine card was going out of fashion and the public was ready for a new fad. The decade between about 1878 and 1888 became the heyday of the Christmas card.
Cards of fine quality were being produced in England, Europe and the USA. Some of these cards were being sent to Australia from family and friends overseas. Soon large quantities were also being imported for local use. But, of course, all these cards depicted a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. Snow-scenes, English red-robins, European flowers, plum puddings and holly were hardly appropriate for the hot Australian summer Christmas. It is not surprising that a few enterprising business people began to think in terms of Australian subjects. It was in this period that we were developing a sense of patriotism and nationalism as we approached the time of Federation.


It is likely that the first Australian Christmas cards were those designed by the NSW artist, Helena Forde (nee Scott)2 showing local wildflowers. These superbly produced cards were chromolithographed in a set of twelve. They were first advertised in the Sydney Mail on 9 November 1879. Furthermore, the December 1879 issues of the Sydney Morning Herald stated that these cards were ‘drawn from nature by Mrs. Forde’. Although the cards were marketed by the Sydney publishers, Turner and Henderson, whose logo appears on each card, they were almost certainly printed in London. Careful perusal of the likely pre-Christmas periodicals of the 1870s strongly suggests that there were no earlier cards that could be regarded as Australian. In the following year, Helena's sister, Harriet Scott, designed a similar set of twelve. (These are known to be by Harriet because her initials appear on each card).
At about the same time, or just a little later, the London firm of Marcus Ward & Co. issued a series of fine Christmas and New Year cards showing scenes of Australian colonial life, mostly based on the artwork of Edward Roper.3 In this same period another famous English printer, Raphael Tuck & Sons, also produced several Christmas cards featuring Australian scenes.
The time had come for the first actual printing of Christmas cards in Australia. The printing company of John Sands had been long established in Sydney, and in May 1881 his son, Robert, held a competition to attract suitable designs for the following
Christmas. In a circular issued at the time Sands announced:
Hitherto we have been compelled to import these cards from England, America and the Continent, where they are produced in immense numbers; but being published for climates of temperature and season different to our own, they are never specially appropriate here. In order that the competitors should leave the beaten track, I made it a condition that Australian subjects only should be used, with the result that instead of sending home cards with ice, holly &c, our friends will have the pleasure of receiving them enhanced by seeing on our cards subjects totally new to them, and at the same time be able to notice the advance Australia is making in the fine arts…4
In general the designs that won prizes were not subsequently used for the issued cards. However, one significant exception was an entry by the Sydney artist Charles H. Hunt, described in the Sydney Morning Herald (23 May 1881) as:
a thoroughly Australian picture, well designed, drawn, and coloured. It shows a fairy-like little girl, who has evidently run up from a picnic party in the background, proffering a Christmas pudding to a tired swagmen, who has just sat down under a shady tree to drink a pannikin of tea.
This card, reproduced here as the cover, is clearly card No. 1 in the John Sands listing in the Sydney Daily Telegraph of 1 November 1881. It sold for one shilling and three pence. There were 38 cards in the John Sands series also advertised in the Bulletin on 15 October to be on sale two days later. They included rural scenes, as well as native fauna and flora, and Sydney Harbour views, the latter after paintings by J. C. Hoyte and Charles Turner. Many of the pictures show a small monogram, SS, indicating the lithographer, Sydney Sedgfield. All the cards carried verses mostly on their backs, and although critics generally praised the artwork, they were disdainful of the poetry.
John Sands and Co. has long been credited as the first local printer of Australian Christmas cards. However, the honour probably should belong to another Sydney firm, Gibbs, Shallard & Co. This company had also been long established as printers and publishers and in a neck-and-neck race they were able to offer their range of Christmas cards as early as the end of September 1881.
The Gibbs, Shallard & Co. set comprised 21 cards in the first year with the same range of Australian subjects as those of John Sands. Generally they were a little more vibrant in colour and they may have been more successful on the market. While Sands discontinued production of Christmas cards after 1881, the Gibbs, Shallard & Co. continued each year until 1886. In total they issued nearly 200 different designs over these six years. All the titles are known from lists advertised in the periodicals of the time, but very few examples are seen by collectors today.
Perhaps the most appealing are those featuring Australian animals and birds in whimsical human situations. Local wildflowers were also popular. As we would expect, overseas fashions influenced taste and style. Sometimes topical events were portrayed. In

Four cards (each 124 × 180mm) designed by Helena Forde for Christmas 1879.
Collection of Michael Aitken.


Gibbs, Shallard & Co. Christmas card no. 112 (150 × 103mm) issued in 1881.
Collection of Michael Aitken.

An 1880s Christmas card (167 × 109mm) possibly designed by Ellis Rowan and printed in London by Marcus Ward & Co. Collection of Michael Aitken.


Ballarat Telegraph Office greetings card printed by Henwood & Rider, Ballarat, and sent to the postmaster at Murtoa in 1882. Pictures Collection, H8705.

1885 a contingent from New South Wales briefly took part in the Sudan War. Although this war was over for the Australians by May there were amusing Gibbs, Shallard Christmas cards showing kangaroos and emus participating in the battle. Other cards in the same year depicted animals in the summer sports of cricket and rowing. In no instance were any of the Gibbs, Shallard cards signed and, in fact, nothing whatsoever is known of any of the artists. By 1886 the proposed series was reduced in number and may have been aborted. I have not sighted a single actual card from that year.
The Australian product could never compete in price with the imported chromolithographic cards. Most of the local cards ranged between sixpence and eighteen pence (and if they were fringed and joined in multiples they could cost up to six shillings or more). Sometimes the imported cards cost as little as one penny. In any event, the fashion was changing and by the end of the decade cabinet photograph Christmas cards were coming into vogue.
So although John Sands clearly had the idea of Australian production first, it seems that Gibbs, Shallard & Co. beat them in marketing in the early years. John Sands did, of course, later resume production of all kinds of greeting cards and eventually became Australia's leading manufacturer. By contrast the Gibbs, Shallard company went out of existence after 1890 when a disastrous city fire destroyed their premises in Sydney.


The pioneer cards of New South Wales can be accurately documented by careful examination of the weekly and monthly periodicals of the day. This led me to thinking

Victorian Posts and Telegraphs greetings card, 1889–90, printed by Phillip-Stephan Process Co. Ltd, Melbourne. Pictures Collection, H8313.

about the earliest Christmas cards connected with Victoria. It should be noted that several of the Gibbs, Shallard cards of 1883 showed Melbourne and Victorian scenery and these can be regarded as very desirable early Christmas cards relating to our State. Also, Marjorie Graham has teasingly referred to the Melbourne publisher, Samuel Mullen, sending some flower paintings by Ellis Rowan to London for the purpose of printing Christmas cards in 1883.5 It is possible that a Marcus Ward & Co. card in my collection represents the work of this prominent artist: Australian Flowers, Christmas Greeting would certainly fit for style and it is known that Ellis Rowan was working in Victoria in this period. Nothing definite, however, has been established at this stage.
Of more significance is the recent unearthing of a small batch of early Christmas cards in the Picture Collection of the State Library of Victoria. These appear to have been accumulated by an official of the Murtoa Posts & Telegraphs Office in the 1880s. Several of these cards are signed Ernest Blake P[ost] M[aster] but it is not certain that this is a contemporaneous signature. Accession records show that the cards were presented to the Public Library of Victoria by a Mr E. Blake of Black Rock in 1937. This was probably the former Murtoa postmaster who died in 1938.6

Victorian ‘Electrical Greetings’ card, 1886–87, printed by Troedel and Co., Melbourne.
Pictures Collection, H8308.

The cards were designed by various employees of the Posts & Telegraphs service and printed by local firms including Troedel & Co. and F. W. Niven & Co. The earliest examples are small monochrome cards dating from 1882. As the decade progressed the cards tended to become larger and more elaborate. The most imposing are highly pictorial, multi-coloured and fold into sections. Typically they illustrate local scenes, telegraph apparatus and office personnel. In general these particular cards conveyed season's greetings from various other Victorian Post & Telegraph offices to the staff at the Murtoa and Avoca offices. Undoubtedly similar Christmas cards were being sent to and from offices all around Victoria. They were sometimes postmarked on the back, thus confirming dating but there was no need for a postage stamp. These cards are rare and practically never seen on the market. For their preservation we are indebted to an enlightened Murtoa postman.


Details on Cole and the first Christmas card from The History of the Christmas Card, London: Spring Books, 1965, p. 6, and


For Helena Forde (1832–1910) see


For Edwin Roper (1832–1909) see


Circular quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1881, p. 5.


Marjorie Graham, The Australian Antique Collector, 23rd edition, 1982, p. 64.


Ernest Blake (1859–1938) was, according to Leigh R. Hammerton's Ashens People: a history of the Murtoa and district (1997), the post-master at Murtoa from 1882–1887.