I love looking at Victorian greeting cards. The style is so charming and there are a lot of things I find quite humorous about how they celebrated holidays back then and what the cards teach us about their attitudes and culture. For instance, I love that there is so often a romantic angle in many of the cards for holidays that we don’t associate with romance, such as Halloween. And simply put, I enjoy the fact that so many greeting cards and postcards were sent in the Victorian era. In the days of texting on birthdays and Zoom invitations for meetups, I appreciate the consideration that people took for each other back then. After all, when was the last time someone sent you a Happy Thanksgiving card?
Because I am also a lover of autumn, I took a look at some online collections of Victorian Halloween and Thanksgiving cards this week and found a few interesting themes that I thought our readers may enjoy as we celebrate Halloween from home this weekend and get ready for a pandemic Thanksgiving.
Victorian Halloween cards
Many lovers of the Victorian era have noted that the Halloween imagery appears rather creepy to us today. Rather than the fun candy and jack o lantern centric themes that we see today, pumpkins take on human attributes, sorcery makes regular appearances, and there are a lot of really spooky cats. Rather than a jolly vibe, some Victorian Halloween cards can make you think of your worst fever dreams.
As I explored in my post on the history of trick or treating, Halloween is a very new holiday. It is generally thought to have emerged from the traditions of Scottish and Irish immigrants who came to America in the 19th century and evolved into today’s form. So in the Victorian era, it was a very new phenomenon and its imagery was a combination of current cultural trends and a brand new understanding of the tradition. As blogger Allison Meier explains: “To unravel all the visuals of Halloween is to find threads from harvest festivals, Celtic folklore, Victorian parlor games, American immigration, a heavy dose of commercialization, and Christianity’s eclipse of formerly pagan traditions.”
When it comes to what we today consider creepy, here are some of my favorites:
(All photos collected from the amazing Loyola Marymount University Digital Collections.)
Another common theme found in Victorian Halloween cards provides insight into how they viewed and celebrated Halloween. Can you pick out the customs and activities in these cards?
Romance in Victorian Halloween cards
We know that the Victorians were sentimental people. So much so that they found ways to infuse courting and flirting into each holiday, even Halloween.
Victorian Thanksgiving cards
As with Halloween, Thanksgiving was taking shape during the Victorian era. Though it had been celebrated in America for many years, it was still becoming a major national holiday. As turkey fever took over, more cards were sent, often featuring live, lifelike turkeys. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I like this trend very much!
And some portray children with pre-dinner turkeys, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me!
Please note that some of the above images are also from the Edwardian era, but I was unable to gather dates for all. Please excuse my generalizing.