These days Christmas annuals still hold a (sentimental?) place in the book market in the run-up to Christmas. Although the annuals of today – themed around favourite children’s TV programmes, football teams, computer games – seem a world away from what we might imagine our ancient ancestors to have purchased, we might take a moment to ask ourselves, for example, what would Europeans in the 19th century have given their loved ones?
Annuals appeared in Britain in the 1820s in imitation of the long-established almanacs of France and Germany.
The British versions contained sentimental short stories, essays and poetry by names such as Shelley, Dickens, Byron, Wordsworth etc. By the 1820s steel engraving was used almost comprehensively, showcasing the latest printing technique of the day.
However, by the 1860s a new form of Christmas offering had appeared on the market: the Christmas gift book. Colour wood engraving and chromolithography were fast replacing steel engraving as the crowd-pleasing printing techniques of the era. Marcus Ward & Co. was a firm that had diversified into manufacturing greeting cards as well as books. There was much potential for overlap and clever re-purposing of material, particularly as this publisher employed the rising stars Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway. For the second biggest celebration of the Victorian calendar, Valentine’s Day, a selection of their Valentine’s cards were placed together with sentimental verses in the 152 page gift book ‘The Quiver of Love’.
Turning our attention back to Christmas though, we’ll consider now this slightly unusual pocket-sized example gift book from the firm from around the 1870s.
Some of the materials and techniques that feature in our small Christmas gift book were ones used for greetings cards of the day: silk ribbons, velvet/velour, die stamping, scalloped edges. This book is a lot shorter in format than the steel-engraved annuals from earlier in the century (and even the majority of the new style gift books) weighing in at just a few pages long. The new poetic gift books were defined, however, by their original artworks, a break away from the faithful reproductions of established artworks in the earlier annuals, where literature was composed in response to them.
Our small volume has a robin preparing his song under the tuition of elves (who also paint his breast ready for the season). The ‘Old Year’ is pelted out with snowballs and Jack Frost exterminates the ‘Elves of Christmas-tide’; the ‘Young New Year’ then awakens in a bed of Christmas roses.
The effect is somewhat saccharine sweet, but somehow the upbeat whimsy of the whole affair manages to win over perhaps even the most practiced of cynics during the holiday season!