In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, created the first commercial Christmas card. The illustration, by John Callcott Horsley, depicted a family toasting Christmas in the center, with scenes of Good Samaritans helping the poor on both sides. Somewhat unexpectedly, it also included the image of a small child sipping a glass of red wine.
The popularity of holiday cards grew in the latter half of the 19th century as they became easier to mass produce. In 1874, lithographer Louis Prang started selling Christmas cards in the U.S.; six years later, he was printing more than five million per year.
All these Christmas cards needed artwork, which meant new opportunities for “artists, lithographers, engravers, printers, ink and pasteboard makers,” according to an 1883 article in the Times on the burgeoning card industry.
Surprisingly, the artwork itself was not always traditional Christmas fare. Unlike today’s holiday cards, religious themes were rare, and they did not always feature traditional festive scenes. Go ahead and admire these pretty–and pretty unusual–Victorian Christmas and New Year’s cards. There’s not a Santa Claus or winter wonderland in sight.