1879: The Cards Must Go Through

The card pictured below, between this paragraph and the next, is the very first commercially produced Christmas card in the English-speaking world. The colours were added by hand after the printing process, making them quite expensive. Note the lack of traditional religious imagery, and the portrayal of the value of charity to either side of the gathered family. Only a very few of these cards exist today, partly because the Puritans took exception to its depicting the consumption of alcohol and made it their mission to destroy every last one. Many of these got through to their recipients, though, and started a tradition in 1843 that has lasted up to the present day.

So how did this get started, and why did it catch on? The answers to these questions are not simple, but they do explain a great deal about how Victorians connected with one another, how they communicated across distance, and how the economics and inventions of the era led to the cards those of you who celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or many other midwinter holidays, there’s cards for all of them nowadays) might have on your mantel at this very moment. Let’s trace the journey of one single card, from Alice in London to her sister Edith in Edinburgh.

Alice has decided to use a commercially available card. These have come a long way, in 1880, from the hand-coloured cards printed in small batches in 1843. Modern press designs allow for the cards to be printed, overprinted, embossed, foiled, and even have tiny bows stuck to them with a dot of glue all by machine. They’re still single-panel cards, though, not the gate-fold cards that we’re used to here in the 21st century. The main reason for this is postage, and we’ll get to that in a moment. Alice peruses the cards on offer at the stationer’s, or possibly at a penny store as mass printing and distribution has brought the cost of individual cards down to where the average lower middle class person can afford to send quite a few, and the poor can even scrape up the penny needed for a card for a very dear relative. This low cost is part of what opens mass communication up to the masses. A postal card can be read by anyone along the way, as there’s no envelope, but for such a cheap price, a bit of privacy is surrendered quite willingly by thousands of people every day.

Alice buys the card that most appeals to her, one she thinks Edith will find charming, and takes it to the Royal Mail postal office down the block. There, she takes advantage of the writing-counter, with its freely available pen and ink, to sketch out a sentiment on the card. Missing you terribly, perhaps your family can make the journey next Christmas, or possibly mine could if Reginald’s season goes well. Love always, your sister, Alice. She addresses the card to Edith, puts her return address in the corner in case something goes astray and the Royal Mail needs to return the card to the sender, and takes it to the window. There, the postal clark inspects the card to be sure it meets the standards for size and weight, and is properly and clearly addressed. She charges Alice a ha’penny for the stamp, and affixes it to the card. Christmas cards are counted by the Royal Mail as postal cards, the cheapest item they will carry, at a half penny of postage each. This further contributes to both the commercial success of Christmas cards, and to the ease and ready availability of long distance communication. The card itself is cheap, and the postage is cheap, and for a penny and a half, which barely gets you a glass of beer these days, anyone who can read and write (or get someone to read and write for them) can send off a cheery greeting at midwinter’s and catch up briefly on the most important of personal news.

The clark adds the card to the stack to go off to the back. Every so often, and during the Christmas rush (oh yes, there’s a Christmas rush on the post office in 1880 just as there is now) it’s about once an hour, a junior clark comes by, picks up all the outbound mail from each service window, and takes it to the back to be sorted. Here, Alice’s card is glanced at by a sorter, who tosses it over to the train table, as it’s leaving London. The train sorter glances at it, and pops it into the Edinburgh pigeonhole, a large bin in the vertical sorter he works at, as Edinburgh is a major railway terminus and thus a major sorting point for Scotland’s mail. More and more items join Alice’s card, until the bin is full, at which point a mail handler scoops it all up, bundles it, and tosses the bundle into a canvas sack with other bundles of mail bound for Edinburgh. All of this happens at lightning quick speed. The average mail sorter could riffle through one piece of mail per second, sixty a minute, sending each item to the next stage of its delivery path. The pigeonholes on the local table are for mail routes, and the delivery agents will sort those bundles in order of address before they set out to carry the mail to its final destination. The pigeonholes on the train table are for train routes, sending the mail off to various cities where it’ll be sorted again. There’s also a table for mail going down to the docks, to be put aboard a steamship for much more distant places.

It’s approaching five o’clock, and the last mail run for Edinburgh. The canvas sack with Alice’s card gets heaved up onto a wagon, the driver flaps the reins and shouts, and the horses launch themselves out into the street for the mail run to the train station. During the course of the day, most of the mail goes over to the rail freight depot in pneumatic tubes under the streets, riding in cars large enough to take a full grown human lying down, a dozen or more bags at a time. This last run of the day is a holdover from the coaching era, and a bit of spectacle that the locals still enjoy. All down the pavement alongside the last block before the mail depot entry, people have been lining up to watch the day’s final deliveries. As the bells begin tolling five of the evening, the newspaper boys charge down the street, bundles of the day’s papers tied up with string slung over their shoulders, and the mail wagons come tearing round the corner, horses in a lather, determined to make the gate before the last peal of the hour. The bystanders cheer, the boys (only very occasionally a girl, and she has to be a tough one) nip through the gate just ahead of the horses, and the mail wagons roll through as the railway workers tip their caps and swing the gates closed behind them, the lock snapping into place as the final bell dies away. The spectators applaud, and turn to the nearby pubs for refreshment, as the mail workers heave the sacks off the wagons straight into the TPO wagon, the last sack going in just as the driver blows out the cylinders in preparation for getting the train under way. The newspapers have all gone in, and the boys have nipped out for a penny bap and maybe a tot of gin if they can afford it. The London to Edinburgh express train rolls out of the station, and starts its long journey north.

In the Traveling Post Office (TPO) wagon, another gang of sorters have gone to work. Each canvas bag is dumped out onto the sorting table. The bundle is checked to see where it’s bound for, Edinburgh local mail getting tossed down the line to the local table, other Scottish mail to the regional table, and mail bound further on to the long distance table. Alice’s card lands on the local table, gets unbundled from its companions, and glanced at by the sorter, who pops it into a pigeonhole corresponding to a local mail route. The TPO sorters are the top guns of the Royal Mail, capable of sorting over a hundred pieces of mail a minute while working in a rail wagon charging through the countryside at forty miles an hour or more. They sleep on the train coming down, then work all the way back up, or vice versa, sometimes spending two or three days aboard one train or another before they see home again. By the time the train reaches Edinburgh, ten hours later, an entire wagonload of mail will have been sorted, re-bundled, and made ready for delivery to the next point.

Some will have been put off the train along the way, and more mail brought aboard, without stopping the express. Bundles of mail for points along the Permanent Way are loaded into heavy black leather bags, made by saddlemakers who’ve found new outlets for their craft. These bags, weighing fifty to sixty pounds fully loaded, are hung out the side of the wagon on a quick-release mechanism, and captured by a net or hook mechanism at the rail station in passing. Similar bags are put out by the rail stations, and brought aboard by a net capture mechanism. The train generally slows to thirty miles an hour or so for this operation, which only reduces the danger. The bags have to be hung out at just the right moment, so that a tree close to the rails doesn’t tear the hook off the car. Likewise, the incoming bags have to be scooped up with precision, so that the net doesn’t try to bring the tree aboard. The bags themselves present a danger, fifty pound missiles being launched into the TPO wagon at thirty miles an hour being sufficient to break a leg (or worse) if the worker is standing in the wrong place. Considerable practice and careful timing are both required, and yet every day, trains all across the British Isles and throughout other nations use the same basic mechanism to move the mail.

Finally, ten hours after departing London, the train rolls into Edinburgh. Mail bags get tossed off the TPO wagon before it’s come to a complete stop, straight into waiting handcarts, horse-drawn wagons, and steam lorries. Some will go to other trains, to travel further on. Some will go across town and onto steamers, to take the next leg of their journey by sea. The bag with Alice’s card lands in a pushcart that goes across the platform and down a ramp to the waiting maw of the pneumatic transport. There, it’s loaded into a cylindrical car, looking a bit like a Bugatti with its aerodynamic lines and large wheels at each end, with a dozen other bags of local mail. The car is shoved into the tube, the hatch closed, the seal checked, and the lever pulled for pressurization. High pressure air floods into the tube behind the car and it’s shot off underground like a bullet, under the streets and buildings and into the basement of the Royal Mail facility.

There, the bag comes out of the car, is noted as local mail, and goes up a conveyor belt to the local sorting room. Each bundle is pulled out, glanced at, and tossed into the receiving bin for the delivery route it’s already been sorted for. A delivery agent, resplendent in the blue overcoat and red waistcoat of the Royal Mail, that gives them the nickname “robins” and explains why robins are such a popular image on British Christmas cards of the era, empties her bin and goes off to a side table. There, she opens each bundle and sorts the mail by street, then orders each street’s mail by address. With the mail packed in her delivery cart and properly organized, off she goes on her route.

Edith goes to the door when the mail flap rattles, to find a small pile in the basket she’s attached to the door just under the flap opening. Invoices from the greengrocer and the city gas supplier, circulars from the department stores, and a Christmas card from Alice. How lovely!

And so, one day Alice buys a card, and the next morning Edith receives it, thanks to a terrific lot of hard work, a number of modern inventions skillfully applied, and the organizational abilities of the Royal Mail. The same process delivers letters, newspapers, parcels, and anything else that can be sent by post all across the British Empire every day. Similar operations in France, Prussia, the Union and the Confederacy, and many other nations, see to it that mass communication is kept available for the largest number of people possible, bringing the world of the Gilded Age that much closer to our modern one. The possibilities for use in adventures should be obvious.Happy holidays, whatever you might celebrate!

Tally Ho!