Don't throw out those Christmas cards!

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There is nothing so ephemeral as a Christmas card. We are delighted enough to receive them, and indeed they may well be our only contact with some of our friends. They often form the most fragile of links with the past - links that we cannot quite bring ourselves to sever. But then, 12 days after Christmas, we sweep them all away, find the clock on the mantle once more, and give the place a much-needed dusting. But wait a moment! Those cards that you are about to destroy are potential treasures. Well, perhaps ``treasures'' may be going a little over the top. But Christmas cards of the past have had their admirers for many years, and the cards of today may well be of interest to the collectors of tomorrow. And who is going to supply that market but you and me, by stashing away those that we estimate have some merit?

The Victorian Christmas card appears to be back in fashion. Plump children, rugged up against the cold, cheery robins, and hale Santas have popped up everywhere this year. But these reproductions are unlikely to be worth keeping except as examples of the current wave of nostalgia.

Victorian commercialism started the Christmas card tradition. The introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 drastically lowered the cost of sending greetings, and three years later the first printed Christmas card was produced. Their popularity grew apace. German manufacturers were quick to respond, and the first American card was printed in about 1850. Queen Victoria sent thousands, as did Mrs. Cleveland, wife of the President of the United States, and the custom quickly spread to every level of society that could afford the luxury.

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The first Christmas cards appear very similar to the Valentines of the period. The much smaller market in Valentines was already well established, so it was only natural that the same techniques and styles should be used. Most of the designs are printed in colored lithography, a technique invented by George Baxter, onto single or folding cards, often with the addition of paper lace edging. The design of cards was taken seriously. (That pictures of merrymaking were a corrupting influence was still being debated at the time.) Well-known artists were not too proud to contribute designs and the celebrated book illustrator, Kate Greenaway, designed cards for Marcus Ward - cards that have become among the most sought-after among collectors.

Flowers, birds, and animals abound, and through these cards we have a decorative view of Victorian family life, humor, religious thought, and even social conditions, although these may be more than a little tinged with sentimentality. Toward the end of the century, the art nouveau and aesthetic movements influenced designs, and in the new century even motor cars made an appearance.

The collectors' market in old Christmas cards is not as well established as that of Valentines. A modest Victorian card from a dealer may be had for as little as 2-3, rising sharply according to the decorative value or rarity of subject. The highest prices are fetched by designs by artists such as Kate Greenaway or the desirable pop-up cards. Some auction houses hold sales that include cards of all types. The finest examples are cataloged individually, but for the less valuable cards you will have to be prepared to buy in quantity, but at very much lower prices than when buying them singly.

So, which cards are you to keep from this year's mailing? You will have to be selective, but that may not be difficult. Not many are designed for posterity, but you may find that a few have captured the mood of the moment, and will be of interest to the next generation. Well, the next-but-one perhaps.

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