Those Wacky Victorians


If I write the words “Victorian Christmas card,” what springs to mind? Perhaps a convivial cast of Dickens-esque characters enjoying carols round the tree or sitting at a banquet table with a flaming plum pudding. Or maybe you think of turn-of-the-century whimsy, with beribboned kittens and rosy-cheeked children. But how about ice skating frogs who have lost both their footing and their pipes, all in a row?

Welcome to the wacky world of Victorian novelty cards where beetles dance with frogs while some winged thing shakes a tambourine.


Then again, nothing says holiday cheer like traveling bee and beetle musicians in a wintry landscape. Their walking sticks are a nice touch.


Strange these cards may be, but stranger still are the dead bird postcards. No kidding; I have seen more than one Victorian holiday card that features a dead bird lying on its back, little feet cocked in the air, a cheery Christmas message written below.

I decided not to “send” you any of those. You can thank me later.


The Game’s Afoot!


Imagine a world where mail at Christmas — and any other time of the year — was so ubiquitous, you could devise a game around it. I know nothing about this Victorian board game entitled Christmas Mail except that it was once sold to and played by families more than a century ago.

What might have been the objective — to deliver more letters than anyone else, to receive more cards, or perhaps to maneuver past obstacles like snowed in mountain passes or spooky forests to place children’s Christmas wish lists into the hands of the big guy in red?

Whatever that game’s original goals, my own game of Christmas Mail has but two: send out Christmas cards in time for friends and family to open them by December 25th (a date I don’t always meet), and maybe collect a few from my mailbox in return.

The Slant of Love

Language of StampsWho knew there was a language of stamps? I had heard about the language of flowers, where the Victorians wrote entire books about how to convey meaning through carefully constructed bouquets.

cupid-s-code-1However, our 19th century forebears did not stop there. In an age of rigid conduct, when even the “legs” of a piano were draped in fabric, men and women found ever more subtle ways to send messages to one another. Hence, a language of stamps.

According to an article in the Philatelic Database, “The problem of postmarking the stamps placed on various parts of the envelope finally became so great, that postal administrations of the world introduced regulations requiring the sender of mail to affix stamps in the upright corner of the envelope.”

Those new regulations mean we can no longer say “Accept my love” by lining up a stamp with the recipient’s surname or “I hate you” with right-angled postage in the top left corner.

Language-of-StampsHowever, I am baffled about what I actually am saying each month when paying credit card and utility bills. While placing a stamp where the post office instructs — upright in the top right corner — means “I desire your friendship,” a straight up and down stamp ANYWHERE on the envelope means “Goodbye sweetheart.”

I hope the gas company doesn’t take my payment the wrong way.

Read more about how angling your stamps can speak volumes.

Ladies with Letters: How Shall I Reply?

Sir Luke FildesThe tip of a quill pen pressed against her lower lip, this brown-eyed girl muses, “How shall I reply?” to the letter she holds in her hand. Her own stationery rests on a green leather blotter on the writing desk. A silver pot holds either ink (but no stopper) or sand for blotting.

Perhaps the young woman sits at a table rather than a desk. Knowing my own desk clutter, it’s hard to believe that highly polished surface is kept clear at all times of everything but one blotter and a silver pot!

Of course, quill pens were no longer the writing instrument of choice by the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Samuel Luke Fildes painted this charming portrait. Pens with metal tips had been mass produced for decades. However, the soft tip of a feather pressed against her lip evokes a very different mood than a wood and metal pen. Everything about her is soft, from the tendrils of hair curling at her forehead to the wispy, lace-edged scarf tucked around her bodice. Her dreamy reverie is the personification of innocence and perhaps young love.

Fildes, a British artist, was born in 1843 — the beginning of the Victorian age. Strongly influenced by the social realist movement as a young man, he joined the staff of The Graphic, a social reform weekly dedicated to the idea that visual images could help alter public opinion. In other words, if people saw the plight of the downtrodden, they might be more willing to support charities that helped them.

The 26-year-old Fildes provided black and white illustrations of London’s poor. His drawing of people lined up to spend the night in a shelter inspired Charles Dickens to commission Fildes to illustrate his final (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Edward_VII_in_coronation_robesFildes left The Graphic after a year to work on his oil painting full time. In stark contrast with his dark depictions of London’s slums, he turned his attention to romanticized scenes of life in Venice, joining a group of artists loosely referred to as the Neo-Venetian school. Fildes also painted numerous portraits, including the young woman with a pen.

Edward VII knighted Fildes in 1906. Was it because the king really liked the artist’s well-known portrait of him in full coronation robes? Always flatter the monarch.

For your own writing needs, you can find Fildes’ charming painting — as well as other Ladies with Letters images — on cards and other products at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle. 

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Mysterious Wee Envelope

July 15, 1847 envelope July 15, 1847 envelope back

Before eBay was born, I occasionally bid by fax for assorted lots in long distance auctions. I don’t remember what I was trying to purchase, but in one grab bag of ephemera, I received this tiny envelope with elegant blue piping and a curved flap. Postmarked on July 15, 1847 in Bristol, it’s a testament to Victorian England’s postmen, who delivered it to Swansea the following day (exactly 167 years ago today).

Sent to Mr. John Morris on Gower Street, the envelope had long since lost whatever letter it contained. The seal on the back was also missing, as was the stamp. Or so I thought at first glance.

Penny BlackOn closer inspection, I saw that someone had penned the word “Paid” in the upper right corner where one usually affixed a stamp. This puzzles me. England introduced the world’s first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black, in 1840. Realizing that black was not the best color for a stamp  — how would you see the cancellation marks?  —  the post office switched to brick red stamps the following year. So the mystery is, if postage stamps had been used for the last seven years, why was the envelope simply inscribed Paid?

Sorry, I’m not going to answer that question because I simply don’t know, but if any reader does, I would appreciate a comment.

tiny envelopeThe other thing that strikes me is the envelope’s size, approximately that of a modern day business card. My wee envelope seems better scaled to an invitation to a doll’s tea party than to a letter mailed to Mr. Morris. Were many envelopes that small in the past? Note the size compared to modern day stamps.

Actually, the envelope is just the right size for my cat. And now that I think about it, Morris was the name of the ginger cat that starred in all those 9 Lives TV commercials…

tiny envelope with cat

Ladies with Letters: Ups and Downs of Hair

Otto Franz ScholdererAlthough dressed as an elegant young woman, the subject in this painting entitled “Girl with a Letter” is wearing her hair loose under her charming velvet hat, something only an adolescent girl would do in the Victorian era.

Yet, look at the ring worn on the ring finger of her left hand. Is she engaged or promised? Then there are the roses in her lap, perhaps sent with the letter. Would a girl old enough for such romances still wear her hair down?

Pinning up one’s hair was a rite of passage for young women, making the mismatch between her attire and her hair puzzling. The fact that she has put on a hat also indicates that she is definitely dressed to leave the house, so it’s not a case of wearing casual attire in her own boudoir.

Wavy HairWhatever the reason she wore her hair loose, I feel a kinship with those wavy — slightly frizzy — locks. My own curly hair drove me crazy for years before I gave up the battle and admitted straight hair was not for me.

A German artist named Otto Scholderer painted the long-haired girl. Born in Frankfurt in 1834, his career took him to Kronberg, Dusseldorf, Munich, Paris and London, where he lived from 1871 until 1899, nearly half his life. Scholderer counted Edouard Manet as one of his friends, and possibly one of his artistic influences.

For your own writing needs, cards depicting Scholderer’s painting are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Ladies with Letters: Woman in White

Thomas Benjamin Kennington -- blogThe first thing you notice is the layer upon layer of white in this portrait by Thomas Benjamin Kennington; the second is the hair. Or rather at first glance what appears to be a magnificent mountain of hair. It’s actually a hat, some feathery confection that perches on her head like a curled up pet. I wonder about that choice of hat. Everything else is so serene, bright, frothy. Sunlight gilds her letter, the leaves, her cheeks and forehead. Light spills down her dress and pools in her lap. She exists in a spun sugar world of white. Then there’s the hat.

Kennington was born in Grimsby, England, and studied art in the 19th century in Liverpool, London and Paris. He painted not only idealized domestic settings like this, but also scenes of society’s less fortunate with titles like “Homeless” and “Orphans.” To modern eyes, those works appear idealized as well, but they played on the sensibilities of Victorian society. Who knows, perhaps his more socially realistic paintings tugged on corseted heartstrings enough to elicit larger donations for the poor.

And perhaps the hat in this portrait is another nod to realism, a touch of the matter-of-fact to serve as counterpoint to the glowing unreality of the woman in white.

Cards with this image, and other products, are available at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Ladies with Letters: By the Sea

Alexander Mark Rossi 1894When I visit the beach, I am almost as covered up as these three ladies in their Victorian gowns. Long gone are my childhood days of scrabbling over mussel-encrusted boulders, the wind whipping my hair against my face. Older and maybe an inch wiser, I sit under an umbrella, a skirt protecting pale legs, my toes burrowing into the sand.

In my bag of water, grapes, hardboiled eggs and sunblock is a book. It’s always there, but I seldom read more than a page or two.

The waves hypnotize me, roaring with the collapse of a billion bubbles. What do you call that shade of green in the deep hollow of the curl, or that shimmering translucence right before it breaks? And yet the distant water is blue, blue and bluer still until the horizon melts into the sky.

I watch seagulls steal chips from the young mother snapping photos of her child and search for the flash of dolphins, which sometimes arc through the surf just offshore. Pelicans fly overhead in a V formation, their shadows gliding across the sand like bombers in WWII news reels.

The glare and salt and whoosh make me drowsy beyond measure, but I don’t close my eyes. I look at everything…except the pages of my book.

That’s why, as much as I enjoy this 1894 painting by Alexander Mark Rossi, I can’t picture myself as one of the three women ignoring the sea behind them.

The painting is (inevitably) entitled “The Love Letter,” so they must be sisters rather than a mother and her daughters. With her hair pinned up, the middle woman is clearly older than the girls whose hair streams down their backs. An envelope lies on the rock, and a little sailboat floats forgotten in a puddle—perhaps a comment on leaving behind childish things for more “grown-up” pursuits like romance.

In the background a barefoot woman with a basket on her back appears to be looking for something, clams perhaps or seaweed? And on the horizon, a ship trails smoke as it steams away from port.

Rossi was born in Corfu in 1840, the son of an Italian judge, and emigrated to London in the 1870s. Over the next 30 years he exhibited 66 works at the Royal Academy, often painting children and young adults, many modeled on his own family members.

Cards and other products featuring this painting are available in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Ladies with Letters: Roses for You

charles_trevor_garland blogWhether you’re celebrating as a mother or with your mother tomorrow, or remember making cards and picking flowers for her years ago, Happy Mother’s Day!

When my daughter was seven, she made me breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day, proudly telling me how she toasted the bread three times in a row to “make it extra crispy.” Now that she’s grown, I request homemade scones in lieu of extra crispy toast. Do you remember making breakfast in bed for your mom?

Charles Trevor Garland painted this charming portrait of a young girl holding roses and a ribbon-bound letter.  A 19th century British painter, he often depicted children and pets, two themes dear to the hearts of his Victorian audience.

Cards and other products featuring this painting are available in the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Happy Mother’s Day