If you are about to sit down to write your Christmas cards for this year, and have had some trouble finding the ones that you want to send at the right price, then consider this: you might be able to make money out of some of the amazing cards that were being sent at Yuletide in the Victorian era.
The true spirit of Christmas lives on in the seasonal cards handed out in Victorian Britain before the goodwill was hijacked by advertisers, and as you can see from the images on this page, they were beautifully crafted. If you are looking to invest in something a little out of the ordinary, you can still pick up some of these cards at a decent price, and although there is no guarantee they will rise in value, the experience of the last decade suggests they are becoming increasingly valuable.
The very first Christmas card was sent in 1843. It was one of 1,000 hand-coloured cards of a family toasting the season and commissioned by director of Victoria & Albert Museum, Sir Henry Cole.
At the time these JC Horsley illustrated cards were sold for the princely sum of a shilling a piece, but now they can change hands for £8,500 each. Only about a dozen of these cards are believed to have survived and the same yuletide greetings could be picked up for about £2,000 a decade ago.
With the arrival of a chromolithographic process in the mid 19th Century cards could be packed with vivid colours often superior to those of cards today. Chromolithography replaced hand painting and involves the transfer of oil-based paints to paper, using a series of specially treated stones or metal plates.
In the Victorian era when a person paid a formal call on a friend, it was customary to leave visiting cards as a reminder of the visit. By the 1860s, Charles Goodall & Son had started mass-producing such cards for visits at Christmas and New Year with small illustrations.
These forerunners of modern Christmas cards included robins, holly and mistletoe illustrations and investors can pick them up for under £100 today. The heyday of the Christmas card was the 1880s when it also started to capture the imagination of the middle classes - though it was still a luxury item.
The cards were so highly prized Victorians would often put them in special albums - they would typically exchange no more than a dozen a year. The makers were highly inventive with lots of novelty designs, offering different shapes, pop-ups and even mechanical and bird 'squeaker' cards. They often had verse inside, and used comic animals, such as dressed up pets and monkeys, as illustrations for the card fronts.
favourites included traditional snow scenes depicting nature or sports, such as ice-skating, as well as seasonal Charles Dickens images. These cards can still be picked up for just a few pounds.
When collecting, it is important to seek out the most appealing images as the chances are if you like them, so will other potential investors. Also key to the appeal is that the cards provide a social history of lifestyle, sense of humour, plus a celebration and love of nature as seen through Victorian eyes.
Early card publishers to look out for include Raphael Tuck & Sons, De La Rue and Marcus Ward & Co.
The Christmas tree was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert in 1841, and appeared in cards within a few years. Holly came in 1848 while robins arrived in 1850s.
After 1870 Christmas cards could be sent in an unsealed envelope for a halfpenny ? boosting their appeal. Father Christmas?s arrival coincided with this, and early Edwardian era Santa Claus themed cards were commonplace - though he was still St Nicholas.
The real St Nicholas was a 4th Century Turkish bishop and Father Christmas derives from a German translation of him as Kris Kringle. The Dutch translation Sinterklaas turned him into Santa Claus. St Nicholas climbed roofs and dropped purses down chimneys into girls' stockings.
He not only wore red tunics on the card illustrations, but also purple, green, blue and white. The more unusual colours tend to fetch the most money. Among the most sought after are hold-to-light Santa cards worth as much as £100 today - a decade ago they could be picked up for less than £20.
Modern merchandisers hi-jacked the saintly Christian figure to cash in on the season of goodwill by promoting their own goods. Santa only became jolly, rosy cheeked and round after advertisers for Coca-Cola adopted him in the Thirties.
Of course, if you are unsure about investing, whether that is in Christmas cards, or more traditionally stocks and shares, you should take advice from an expert before going ahead.
Toby Walne is the author of ?101 Extraordinary Investments ? Curious, Unusual & Bizarre Ways to Make Money. A handbook for the adventurous collector?. Details available at www.tobywalne.co.uk. Hardback retail £12.99. Special offer price at www.amazon.co.uk